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More Canadian Poltergeists

More Canadian Poltergeists

Last Friday, I published an article on the Great Amherst Mystery– the story of Canada’s most famous poltergeist. As I mentioned in that article, poltergeist activity, according to spiritualists, is characterized by loud, inexplicable knocking sounds; the motion of household objects absent of some discernible force; and the presence of a person- usually a teenage girl- around which these activities seem to revolve.

The mystery of Amherst, Nova Scotia, is but one among dozens of cases of alleged Canadian poltergeist activity. From Vancouver to St. John’s, and from the 17th Century up to the present day, households all over the country have played host to this mysterious activity, attributable to boisterous ghosts, teenage pranksters, or accidental adolescent telekinesis, depending on who you talk to. Such stories are sufficiently numerous to fill a book, and maybe one day, if this author feels up to the task, such a tome will grace the shelves of our bookshop. For now, however, here are a few more Nova Scotian poltergeist stories, each of which curiously take places in the month of December. Enjoy!

The Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills

In 2010, American horror novelist Stephen King wrote Full Dark, No Stars, an anthology comprised of four novellas. One of these novellas, entitled “1922”, tells the fictional story of a Nebraska farmer who experienced paranormal activity on his family farm in the year 1922.

It has been said that truth is stranger fiction. This idiom rings true when one compares the eerie plot of 1922 with an even more chilling real-life case of supposed paranormal activity which took place that same year on a remote Nova Scotian homestead far from the arid plains of Nebraska. This farm was owned by an elderly couple named Alexander and Janet MacDonald, who lived there with their 15-year-old adopted daughter, Mary Ellen. The MacDonald homestead was located near Caledonia Mills, a rural community comprised almost entirely of Catholic Highland Scots, situated in northeastern Nova Scotia about 20 minutes southeast of the town of Antigonish. In 1922, this otherwise unremarkable farmhouse was the site of alleged poltergeist activity which made headlines all over Canada and the United States.

The activity began in December 1921. One cold winter morning, old Alex MacDonald, while tending to his animals, found that someone had set his horses and cattle loose from their stalls sometime in the night. Mere minutes after he guided the last horse back into its stall, all the animals inexplicably escaped again.

Several days later, MacDonald awoke to learn that the horses and cattle had switched places. On another occasion, he discovered that some nocturnal agent had bobbed his horses’ tails, or twisted the horsehairs into elaborate braids.

Alexander MacDonald quickly grew weary of the pranks. Eventually, he asked some of his neighbours to assist him in catching the culprit red-handed. Unfortunately, these well-meaning Nova Scotian farmers fared little better than McDonald, although they did witness a number of mysterious manifestations. One farmer saw a strange blue light emanating from MacDonald’s barn one night. Another noticed that household objects seemed to vanish before reappearing in other sections of the estate. Two neighbours even claimed to have observed a hand waving a white cloth from the second-story window of MacDonald’s farmhouse at a time when no residents were in that part of the house. It quickly became clear to Alex and his neighbours that something very strange was going on at the MacDonald farm.

Soon, Macdonald’s mysterious tormentor began lighting fires on his property. This arsonous activity intensified until, on January 6, 1922, Alex MacDonald and six of his neighbours spent the day combatting both a ferocious blizzard and a whopping thirty eight fires which erupted mysteriously in and around his farmhouse. Fearing for his family’s safety, Alex asked his neighbour, Leo McGillivray, if he and his wife and adopted daughter might stay at his farmhouse until the mystery was solved- a request which McGillivray happily granted. In the ensuing weeks, the elderly Alex slogged over three miles of snow-covered dirt road twice a day to feed his livestock.

News travels fast in small towns, and soon the story of the poltergeist of Caledonia Mills reached the ears of regional newspapermen. On January 16, 1922, a reporter named Harold B. Whidden, who worked for the Halifax Herald, was dispatched to the MacDonald farm and charged with writing a few pieces on the activity. Whidden dutifully interviewed Alexander, Janet, and Mary Ellen, as well as several neighbours, and included their startling testimonies in a number of articles. He also visited the abandoned MacDonald farmhouse and saw that it indeed bore evidence of many fires.

Shortly after the conclusion of his first visit, Harold Whidden made a second trip out to the MacDonald farm, this time intending to stay in the farmhouse for three nights. He was accompanied on this outing by Alexander MacDonald and Detective P.O. “Peachy” Carroll- a county policeman from the nearby town of Pictou, Nova Scotia.

The men’s first day of investigation was uneventful. On their second night, however, both Whidden and Carroll heard strange noises unlike anything they had ever heard before which seemed to emanate from the upper floor of the farmhouse. As Whidden listened to the sounds, his eyes glued to the ceiling, he felt a hard slap on his arm, noticeable through several layers of thick clothing.

“Did you just slap me?” he asked Carroll.

The policeman shook his head and claimed that he, too, had similarly felt a pressure on his arm.

Immediately, the two men had the distinct impression that someone else was in the room with them. After twenty hair-raising minutes, the strange presence left the house. Bewildered, Whidden and Carroll roused Alex MacDonald, who was dozing nearby. As it turned out, MacDonald had slept through the whole ordeal and hadn’t heard or felt a thing.

Following that incident, Whidden decided to cut his investigation short and book a hotel room in Antigonish, where he documented his experience in number of pieces for the Halifax Herald. His articles stirred the fires of public curiosity, and soon various authorities on the supernatural, including celebrated Scottish writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were invited to assess the situation for themselves.

The only authority to accept the challenge was Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, an esteemed parapsychologist from New York City. In March 1922, Prince, accompanied by Harold Whidden, Leo McGillivray, and a Haligonian (i.e. a resident of Halifax, Nova Scotia) named Dan MacRitchie, paid a visit to the MacDonald estate and began to conduct his own investigation into the alleged poltergeist activity. Many of the local Nova Scotians who encountered Prince during his visit perceived him as an arrogant and egotistical Yankee; their low opinion of him is reflected in a number of contemporary newspaper articles.

Prince began his inspection by recording the nature and location of various items in the farmhouse, examining the scorch marks on the walls, and interviewing the MacDonalds and their neighbours. Early on in the investigation, the parapsychologist, on a whim, asked Whidden and MacRitchie to take part in an experiment. He placed a sheet of paper before each of them, provided both of them with a pencil, and asked them to hold the pencils in their hands passively over the paper. Then, Prince invited any spirit in the house to use these pencils to communicate with them if they so desired. In accordance with the expectations (or lack thereof) of all three of the men, nothing happened.

On Friday, March 10, Whidden was called away to Antigonish. Before he left the farmhouse, some strange urging prompted him to ask Prince to perform the pencil experiment with him again. The parapsychologist obliged. This time, something incredible happened. Some mysterious force seemed to take possession of Whidden’s writing hand and began to scribble on the page, producing what is known to parapsychologists as “automatic writing”. As Whidden put it in a later reminiscence:

“Suddenly, I felt a prickly sensation in the end of some of the fingers of my right hand, which increased. The hand then became numb. Before I realized what was happening, the pencil began to move slowly, without any effort or intention on my part.”

For two hours, Whidden scribbled in this manner, going through many sheets of paper which Prince provided. At first, he produced nothing but circles and slanted lines. Then his scribblings began to take on a more intelligent shape, and in no time he was spelling out messages in a handwriting that was not his own. Although the exact content of these message has never been released to the public, Whidden later claimed that the scribblings asserted that the acts of arson and other mischief at the MacDonald farm were committed by spirits. Whidden also claimed that there were other, more profound messages as well, regarding which he wrote:

“Most of the written statements were of the utmost significance and not a few of them were of an entirely personal character. For that reason the greater part of the contents of the strange manuscript will probably never be divulged.

“In one place, for example, it seemed as if my sister, who passed away on August 13th, 1912, was sending me a message.

“One sentence in the writing which followed was:

‘People must realize that those who have passed beyond are ever present. God is merciful. God is good. He is just.’

“And later: ‘Spirits do visit the Earth after death.’

“The whole message was fully of kindly expression and sympathy. There was no sign of malice or enmity in it. It wrote that it would trouble the Macdonalds [sic] no more, and that it would never appear to them.”

Later on, Whidden wrote:

“This may all seem incredible to some people, but every word of it is true. In fact, I have merely given the readers the skim of it: for the very best of reasons, the cream will never be written. I still have every sheet of paper upon which the message was written and will preserve them as the most valuable documents in my possession.”

To the best of this author’s knowledge, the whereabouts of these documents are currently unknown.

After six days on the farm, Walter Prince wrapped up his investigation and published his findings in the 1922 issue of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. Many false reports regarding the nature of his conclusions were published in newspapers all over North America, pulling their information from interviews with him and members of the MacDonald family which Prince claimed never took place. A read through Prince’s original report, however, reveals that the parapsychologist believed that 15-year-old Mary Ellen was responsible for the fires in the MacDonald farmhouse, and that she had set these fires in a dissociated state, under the influence of some supernatural entity which thrived off her energy. He claimed that Mary Ellen was unaware of her actions and thus was not culpable for them.

Prince further theorized that the same entity which directed the actions of Mary Ellen was also responsible for many other strange activities which took place around the farmhouse, including the phenomena which Harold Whidden and Detective Carroll experienced during their own independent investigation. Regarding Whidden’s automatic writing incident (the existence of which, some newspapers erroneously reported, Prince denied entirely), Prince admitted that he was uncertain whether Whidden’s hand was guided by the same aforementioned entity or his own subconscious mind.

Three months after Prince’s investigation, the MacDonald family moved back into their farmhouse. To their relief, they enjoyed a pleasant summer devoid of any strange activity. Then, in October, mysterious fires began to appear on the property once again. This time, regional authorities blamed Mary Ellen for the activity and hauled her off to the Nova Scotia Home for the Insane, an asylum in Dartmouth. Following her release, Mary Ellen married and moved to Ontario, where she lived to a ripe old age.

Not long after Mary Ellen was institutionalized, Alexander and Janet MacDonald abandoned their farm, unwilling to live on it any long and unable to sell it. With no one to maintain it, the farmhouse slowly fell into disrepair.

Today, there is little to distinguish the old MacDonald estate from any other patch of land in the county of Antigonish. Local legend has it that the land is cursed, and that anyone who removes anything from the area, be it a fragment of shingle or a pebble, invites the “Fire Spook” of Caledonia Mills into their own home. Indeed, one woman who defied the curse in the spring of 1971, retrieving an egg cup from the ruins of the MacDonald farmhouse, lost her own farmhouse to a mysterious inferno which consumed the place while she was away in her city home in Antigonish.

The House on Bible Hill

Across the Salmon River from Truro, Nova Scotia, sits a little village called Bible Hill. Inhabited since the mid-18th Century, Bible Hill is certainly old enough to warrant a ghost or two. If the village had any supernatural residents in the past, however, they were inconspicuous houseguests… that is, until December, 1941.

That fateful month, something inexplicable happened in the home of Mrs. Lucy Langille and Mrs. Rachel Hull- sisters who lived with Lucy’s 16-year-old son, Arnold; and Rachel’s 12-year-old daughter, June; in a house on Bible Hill’s Farnham Road. As Lucy explained in a later interview:

“We were just sitting there when the closet door opened and a pair of shoes walked out across the floor… with no feet in them.”

In the weeks following that bizarre incident, strange things began to take place in the Langille home. Stove lids rattled on their own. Cutlery leaped across rooms. Clocks floated through the air. And on one occasion, a visiting neighbour was inhospitably assailed with a flying fireplace poker hurled by some invisible javelineer.

At that time, Lucy and Rachel’s husbands, like many other Nova Scotian men of fighting age, were across the Atlantic, assisting the British Army in the defence of the United Kingdom. With no one else to turn to, the two ladies confided in their neighbours. Good, hard-headed Nova Scotians that they were, the Langille’s friends refused to believe the ladies’ incredible story without proof. Accordingly, Lucy and Rachel invited them into their home so that they could see for themselves the sort of trouble they had to put up with on a daily basis.

One evening in the spring of 1942, a handful of Bible Hill residents, including a few skeptical reporters, accepted the sisters’ invitation and gathered in the Langille home. The lights were turned off, since ghosts, in the words of one contemporary newspaper article, “like termites and burglars, can’t stand light.” Equipped with flashlights, the neighbours placed themselves in strategic positions throughout the house, determined to expose any monkey business.

All of a sudden, a creaking sound broke the silence.

“What’s that?” one neighbour asked.

“It’s the ghost, rocking in the other room,” Lucy replied.

Snapping their flashlights on, the neighbours rushed into the room. Sure enough, the rocking chair was oscillating vigorously, as if its occupant had abandoned it in a hurry. The room was empty, however, and there were no routes by which a potential trickster might have escaped unnoticed.

“I know what happened,” said one of the neighbours. “Somebody made it rock by pulling a black thread or horsehairs tied together, from a hole in the wall. Look for a thread.” A subsequent investigation failed to turn up any such item.

Another neighbour suggested that the chair might have been moved by a magnet in the floor, provided it had iron attached to its rockers. A subsequent examination proved that the wooden chair was absent of any metal.

Still, the neighbours were unconvinced. They dared the ghost to rock the chair again, in their presence. Sure enough, the chair began to rock.

At a loss, the neighbours decided to reconvene in the kitchen, where they asked the ghost to join them. All of a sudden, they heard a scraping noise on a shelf. Immediately, flashlights concentrated on the sound, which proved to have come from a milk bottle which slid from one end of the shelf to the other.

Before the neighbours had a chance to investigate the incident, a window blind suddenly rolled up on its own. Immediately after that, a table flipped over with a loud crash. Then a kitchen drawer opened and silverware began to levitate. When the neighbours shone their flashlights on the drawer, the spoons, knives, and forks fell to the floor. No sooner had quiet returned to the house than a tin lunchbox leapt from a hook on the wall to clatter on the floor ten feet away.

The neighbours returned to their own homes convinced that something strange indeed had taken up residence in the house on Farnham Road.

Several evenings later, two photographers named George H. Hanebury and Earl Talbot- along with John Murphy, the editor of the Truro Daily News– paid a visit to the house and asked the sisters if they might conduct an investigation of their own. The sisters obliged.

That night, the photographers set up several cameras in the Langille kitchen. During the subsequent investigation, the visitors were bombarded with flying cutlery which stuck into the walls, one of the knives quivering a short distance from a newsman’s head. Unfortunately, the photographers were not quick enough to capture the culprit on camera.

Sometime later, a clothes iron on top of the stove began to rattle. The three men whipped their heads around just in time to see 12-year-old June Hull backing away from the stove, as if in terror. This time, the photographers were prepared. Bulbs flashed and shutters clicked. It seemed that the newsmen had caught the poltergeist of Bible Hill in the act.

Sure enough, when they developed the photos in the darkroom later that night, the photographers found themselves staring at the image of a human hand reaching for the iron. Some took this as clear evidence that little June Hull was behind the strange activity, and had deliberately and successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of her family members and neighbours. Others opined that the hand in the photo belonged to an adult, and couldn’t possibly have been June’s. Whatever the case, the iron rattling was the last trick the poltergeist of Bible Hill ever pulled.

The Christmas Ghost of Eastern Passage

In the Western mind, Christmas Eve has a strong association with mystery, magic, and miracles. According to the Gospel of Luke, for example, angels appeared to Syrian shepherds on the very first Christmas Eve to announce the coming of the Messiah. There is an ancient European folk legend which holds that animals gain the ability to speak at the stroke of midnight on this sacred evening so as to celebrate the birth of Christ. And, of course, there is the story of St. Nick and his eight flying reindeer.

From Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, most stories involving supernatural activity on Christmas Eve are tales of hope and joy. For one Nova Scotian family, however, their own Yuletide ghost story turned out to be the stuff of nightmares.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, 1943, and something indeed was stirring in the home of Louis and Ethel Hilchie, who lived with their children in a cottage in Eastern Passage, a peaceful suburb of Halifax. That night, the Hilchie home resounded with three deep, hollow, and completely unexpected knocks which shattered the evening’s tranquility. To the children’s disappointment, a thorough investigation conducted by Mr. Hilchie proved that the mysterious sounds were neither the result of reindeer landing on the roof nor evidence of a certain jolly gentleman’s attempt to invade their home by way of the chimney. Try as he might, Louis Hilchie was unable to ascertain the source of the knocks.

Following that fateful evening, strange things began to take place in the Hilchie house. In addition to loud knocks occurring at random, household objects began to move as if on their own accord. One day, the family washing machine walked its way across the floor. On another occasion, the table at which Ethel Hilchie sat with three of her children overturned seemingly on its own. Once, a pillow hurled itself down the stairs. Another time, Louis and Ethel’s teenage daughter, Catherine, while heating a frying pan over the stove, watched an egg jump into the skillet as though propelled by unseen hands.

By New Years’ Eve, Mrs. Hilchie was at her wit’s end. In early 1944, she called both the Halifax Regional Police and the Mail-Star, a local newspaper (a precursor to Halifax’s Chronicle Herald), and implored them to assist in getting to the bottom of the mystery. Although the police were no more successful in their attempt to identify the elusive culprit than Louis had been, the Mail-Star reporters witnessed some eerie manifestations of their own. One journalist gazed, mouth agape, as a pair of scissors lying on a shelf trembled, shook, opened, and closed on their own. Another reporter, while interviewing Ethel, watched a kettle of boiling water intended for the teapot pick itself off the stove and crash to the floor. These same newspapermen, during their visit, saw a steaming bowl of soup levitate and tip into Catherine’s lap; watched a box of soap flakes fly down a flight of stairs; and witnessed an alarm clock take flight from a dresser.

The violence of these manifestations seemed to increase with time. The poltergeist graduated from tossing pillows to hurling hammers down the stairs. One evening, Ethel Hilchie descended these same stairs when something grasped the heel of her slipper and wrenched it off. Several days later, the same thing happened. This time, however, Ethel fell down the stairs, fracturing one of her ankle bones in the process.

Interestingly, animals seemed to sense the strange power that lurked within the Hilchie home. For several weeks, a stray dog took to sitting at the Hilchie’s front step and howling at the door.

In the spring of 1944, a researcher named Dr. Thomas L. Garrett, president and founder of the Garrett Foundation for Psychological Research, paid a visit to the Hilchie home at the behest of the American Weekly Magazine, a supplement to the San Francisco Examiner. Garrett was the veteran of many a paranormal investigation, and had revealed many hoaxes in the past.

During his visit, Garrett interviewed Louis, Ethel, and the children at length, pausing once when a teapot flew off a hook in the kitchen to whiz by the head of the Hilchies’ eldest girl, 21-year-old Gladys. Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that the strange activity was not fraudulent, and seemed to revolve around teenaged Catherine (incidentally, a day prior to his arrival, Catherine claimed to have seen the face of a strange-looking man with bushy hair peering at her through a window). As Garrett put it in an article for the aforementioned magazine:

“Investigation revealed that all the mysterious manifestations appeared to have taken place in the presence, and the unknown-to-herself cooperation, of Catherine.”

Regarding his comment on Catherine’s unwitting complicity in the manifestations, Garrett flirted with the notion that Catherine, along with other adolescents around whom poltergeist activity revolves, projected invisible, “‘psychic’, semi-flexible rods” from her body which, “being struck sharply on floor, table, chair, or other body, cause the raps or knocks.” Later on in his article, Garrett admitted that “the theory of the psychic rods, accepted as it is by many psychic investigators, requires further substantiation.”

 

Sources

The Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills

  • Ghost Stories of Canada (2000), by John Robert Colombo and Jillian Hulme Gilliland
  • Fire Spook of Caledonia Mills, in the December 9, 2013 issue of PhantomsAndMonsters.com
  • The ‘Poltergeist Case’ Investigated by Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, in the June 3, 1922 issue of Light: A Journal of Spiritual Progress & Psychical Research
  • My Experiences as the MacDonald Homestead (1922), by H. B. Whidden
  • An Investigation of Poltergeist and Other Phenomena Near Antigonish, by Walter F. Prince, in the 1922 issue of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research

The House on Bible Hill

  • The Haunting of the Langille House, in the March 18, 1942 issue of the Winnipeg Evening Tribune
  • News Cameramen Catch ‘Ghost’ Flatiron-Handed, in the March 20, 1942 issue of the Winnipeg Evening Tribune
  • An article in the Mary 31, 1942 issue of the American Weekly Magazine, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
  • Parade: The Grin and Bare It Section of the May 1, 1942 issue of Maclean’s magazine

The Christmas Ghost of Eastern Passage

  • An article in the March 5, 1944 issue of the American Weekly Magazine, by Dr. Thomas L. Garrett, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra

 

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The Great Amherst Mystery: Canada’s Most Famous Poltergeist

Canada’s Most Famous Poltergeist

Do you believe in ghosts? According to a 2006 poll conducted by Canadian research company Ipsos-Reid, nearly half of Canadians do, and with good reason. Findings from the same study indicate that nearly one in five Canadians, back in 2006, believed to have personally “been in the presence of a ghost” at least once in their life.

If you are among the other half of level-headed Canucks dubious of the existence of the supernatural, take it from a former skeptic who writes for Mysteries of Canada and, as a consequence, reads about these sorts of things all the time: there is no question that millions of people, from the dawn of recorded history to the present-day, have genuinely experienced phenomena for which our current understanding of reality cannot account. Throughout the course of history, various cultures from all across the globe have attempted to make sense of these experiences. Nearly all of them have drawn the same startling conclusion: that we share the world with a variety of non-material entities.

Supernatural Taxonomy

Since the early Victorian Era, spiritualists, as students of the paranormal are known, have attempted to compartmentalize the various supposed denizens of the supernatural world, much like biologists have attempted to classify the subjects of the various kingdoms of the natural world. Although their taxonomic system is neither as sophisticated nor as universal as that developed by their scientific counterparts, spiritualists have nonetheless managed to extract from folklore, sacred scripture, and countless anecdotal accounts an array of definable supernatural species, many of them containing their own internal hierarchies.

For example, there are angels and demons- servants of God and the Devil, respectively.  There are ghosts and spirits- the disembodied souls of the dead, trapped in limbo between this world and the next.  There are “elementals”- ancient, primitive entities associated with particular forces of nature. And then there are poltergeists.

Poltergeist Activity

According to spiritualists, poltergeist activity shares many things in common with regular, run-of-the-mill ghost activity, constituting inexplicable noises, the spontaneous movement of inanimate objects, and other physical disturbances for which there are no rational explanations. Houses haunted by poltergeists will have their walls rapped on loudly by invisible knuckles; doors will open and slam by themselves; plates and cutlery will hurl themselves across rooms; people will be pinched, slapped, or tripped by unseen hands.

Although these phenomena have also been associated with ghosts, there are several characteristics which distinguish poltergeist activity from regular hauntings. The first is the location in which they take place. While ghosts have been seen and experienced in all manner of locales, from hotels to bars to theatres, poltergeist activity is usually confined to domestic premises.

Another difference between ghosts and poltergeists is their perceived motivation. Many people who claim to have seen ghosts receive the impression that the spirit they encountered simply wanted to make its presence known to them. People who claim to have experienced poltergeist activity, on the other hand, often describe antics implying a mischievous intent, as if the poltergeist had been doing its utmost to irritate them.

Lastly, and perhaps most intriguingly, poltergeist activity tends to revolve around certain individuals who, almost invariably, happen to be teenage girls. The activity will only occur in a house when the girl is present. When the girl leaves, the activity tends to leave with her.

What Are Poltergeists?

There have been many ideas put forth purporting to explain the nature of the poltergeist. One of these theories corresponds with the etymology of the subject in question; the word “poltergeist” is a portmanteau of the German words “polter”, meaning “to crash about”, and “geist”, meaning “ghost”. Proponents of this theory believe that the poltergeist is a type of mischievous supernatural entity- either a rambunctious ghost or demon or some unique variety of troublesome spirit- which feeds off the energy of troubled teenagers. In the words of British psychic researcher Harry Price, a poltergeist is:

“…an invisible, intangible, malicious and noisy entity that is able, by laws yet unknown to our physicists, to extract energy from living persons (often the young) and to direct intelligently this stolen power.”

Others believe that the poltergeist is the result of a hoax perpetrated by angsty teenage girls for the purpose of causing mischief or attracting attention to themselves. According to professional skeptic Joe Nickell:

“In the typical poltergeist outbreak, small objects are hurled through the air by unseen forces, furniture is overturned, or other disturbances occur- usually just what could be accomplished by a juvenile trickster determined to plague credulous adults.”

One wild theory espoused by many parapsychologists (i.e. students of extrasensory phenomena) holds that poltergeist activity is neither the work of supernatural entities nor the product of pubescent pranksters, but rather constitutes acts of telekinesis unconsciously perpetrated by the moody teenagers around which they revolve. According to this theory, certain teenage girls possess a mysterious type of energy generated by the furious hormonal hurricane which characterizes female adolescence. In times of stress or emotional turmoil, these young women unwittingly use this energy to remotely slam doors and hurl inanimate objects, a la “Star Wars” or “Stranger Things”. As one writer for the American Weekly Magazine put it in 1942:

“…it is believed that some youngsters, mostly girls, have at a certain age, unconscious power to ‘levitate’ objects. This power, which they seem to lose in a few years, is not necessarily supernatural. It may be an entirely natural one, though at present, not understood at all.”

Whatever its derivation, poltergeist activity is a surprisingly common occurrence in the Western world, and Canada is no exception. Over the years, a number of alleged poltergeists have pulled their stunts all across the Great White North, from Halifax to Vancouver. Some of the stories of those who have witnessed such events defy belief and strain credulity, and would be easy to dismiss out of hand were it not for the reliability and multiplicity of the witnesses. I’d be happy to cover more of these Canadian poltergeist cases if you, dear reader, would like to read about them (if you would, please let me know in the comments below!), but for now, here is a description of the most famous Canadian poltergeist case of all: the Great Amherst Mystery.

The Great Amherst Mystery

If you drive 40 minutes southeast of Moncton, New Brunswick, you’ll come to the beautiful little town of Amherst, Nova Scotia, perched upon the shores of the Bay of Fundy. Back in 1878, a cozy, well-kept cottage in this quaint Victorian village was rocked by the activity of Canada’s most famous poltergeist which, as a result of its subsequent publicity, acquired the nickname “The Great Amherst Mystery”.

The activity in this case revolved around a 14-year-old girl named Esther Cox. At that time, Esther lived in the aforementioned cottage with her eldest sister, Olive, who ran the household; Olive’s hard-working husband, Daniel Teed, who owned the cottage; Olive and Dan’s two young boys, Willie and George, aged 5 and 1, respectively; Dan’s brother, John; Esther and Olive’s brother, William; and the Cox siblings’ 22-year-old sister, Jane.

Esther Cox was said to be a strange girl, exceptionally moody and unusually fond of pickles. She had been a tiny baby, weighing only five pounds at nine months. Her mother died when she was three weeks old, and her father subsequently remarried and moved to Maine, leaving her in the care of her grandmother. Under her grandmother’s influence, Esther grew up to be an oddly serious and old-fashioned girl.

On the character of Esther Cox, one acquaintance wrote:

“Esther’s disposition is naturally mild and gentle. She can at times, however, be very self-willed, and is bound to have her own way when her mind is made up. If asked to do anything she does not feel like doing she becomes very sulky and has to be humored at times to keep peace in the family. However, all things considered, she is a good little girl and has always borne a good reputation, in every sense of the word.”

One afternoon in the summer of 1878, a young man named Bob McNeal- a subordinate coworker of Daniel Teed’s to whom Esther took a fancy- invited Esther to take a ride with him in his carriage. McNeal drove Esther to a wooded area in the country, withdrew a revolver from his pocket, and ordered the girl to get out of the carriage, evidently harbouring ignoble designs. Esther refused, and was saved at the last moment when the noise of an approaching buggy rumbled in the distance. Wheeling the carriage around, McNeal brought Esther back to the Teed cottage, where she cried herself to sleep.

In the ensuing days, Esther’s distress was evident to her family members. Olive and company assumed that Esther and Bob McNeal had simply quarreled on their outing and, not being particularly fond of Bob, and glad of his absence from the cottage (for several months preceding the incident, Bob had been a regular visitor), decided not to press the matter.

On the eve of September 4, 1878, Esther and her sister Jane, who shared a bed and bedroom, were just settling down for the night when Jane felt what she thought to be a mouse crawling inside her mattress. Frightened, the girls lit the lamp and searched for the mouse, but were unable to find it. Later that night, the sisters heard rustling beneath the bed and determined that it was coming from a cardboard box filled with pieces of patchwork. When they dragged the box out into the middle of the room, it jumped a foot in the air and landed on its side. The girls screamed for Dan, who came to their rescue, heard their incredible story, laughed and remarked that they must have been dreaming, and pushed the box back under the bed before heading back to sleep.

The following evening, Esther, who had gone to bed early on account of a fever, sprang from her bed in the middle of the night and cried, “Wake up, Jane! I’m dying!”

Jane woke up, lit the lamp and, to her horror, found that her sister’s face was blood red, her eyes bulging in terror as she trembled in her nightgown. Jane called for assistance and was soon joined by Dan and Olive, her brother William, and Dan’s brother John. Not knowing what else to do, Olive helped her younger sister get back into bed, whereupon all the colour drained from Esther’s face.

In a choking voice, Esther declared, “I am swelling up and shall certainly burst, I know I shall.”

Indeed, Esther’s hands and feet were alarmingly swollen. Her complexion now was deathly pale, where moments earlier it had been beet red, and her skin was burning with fever, where moments earlier it had been icy cold.

While Esther, her body steadily swelling, writhed in pain on the bed, a tremendous sound like a clap of thunder sounded in the room. Shortly thereafter, three loud cracks sounded beneath the bed, and Esther suddenly went limp, her appearance having returned to normal. When they satisfied themselves that Esther was not dead but had somehow spontaneously fallen asleep, her bewildered family members eventually returned to their own beds.

The following morning, Esther seemed reasonably well, although her appetite was greatly diminished. Her family members, being unable to explain the bizarre incident of the previous night, decided to keep the matter to themselves.

Four nights later, Esther had a similar attack. This time, all of the bedsheets flew off of her and her sister and landed in a corner of the room as if they had been ripped off by invisible hands. Jane, who had been awake to witness the spectacle, fainted from fright.

Hearing Esther’s screams, Olive, Dan, William, and John rushed into the bedroom. Seeing the bedsheets lying in the corner of the room, Olive gathered them together and placed them over her ailing sisters. Almost immediately, the sheets flew back into the corner of the room in the same manner as before. Before anyone had time to react, the pillow upon which Esther’s head lay hurtled through the air and struck John Teed in the face. Not knowing what else to do, all of the family members (aside from John, who fled the room in fear) sat on the edge of the bed in order to keep the sheets from flying off again. After a succession of incredibly loud knocks sounded from beneath the bed, Esther’s swelling subsided and she fell into a peaceful sleep.

The following day, the family decided to call the local doctor. When Dan Teed informed the physician of what had transpired, the doctor laughed and assured him that no such nonsense would occur while he stayed in the house, which he intended to do that night until 1:00 in the morning.

The doctor arrive at the Teed house at 10:00 that evening. He immediately examined Esther, who had already been in bed for an hour, and deduced that she had suffered a tremendous shock of some kind. As he spoke, Esther’s pillow moved laterally until only one corner was tucked beneath the girl’s head. The doctor watched in amazement as the pillow returned to its former position without any external assistance.

“Did you all see that?” the doctor exclaimed. “It went back again!”

“So it did,” replied John Teed, “but if it moves out again, it will not go back, for I intend to hold onto it, even if it did bang me over the head last night.”

No sooner had he said this than the pillow moved laterally again, as if to challenge the young man. Though John gripped it with all his might, the pillow subsequently slid back under Esther’s head as if it had encountered no resistance at all. John’s hair stood on end.

Shortly thereafter, loud knocks sounded from beneath the bed. Although the doctor examined the area from which the sounds had originated, he was unable to determine their source. He proceeded to walk about the room, and the knocking followed him, sounding from the floor beneath him.

After about a minute of knocking, the bedsheets once again flew into a corner of the room. Immediately, a scratching sound emanated from the wall behind the bed. When everyone in the room looked to ascertain the source of the noise, they saw that a disturbing message had been carved into the wall:

“Esther Cox, you are mine to kill.”

For three weeks, the strange activity increased in both frequency and intensity. Esther’s invisible tormentor pelted her with objects like potatoes and wooden planks, often in the presence of her family members, and made violent banging noises all throughout the house. The doctor, who prescribed morphine to Esther in order to calm her shattered nerves, went outside during one of these banging sessions and noted that, from the street, it sounded as if someone was standing on the cottage roof and pounding on the shingles with a sledgehammer.

One night in late September, during another knocking session, Esther had a seizure in her bed and became cold and rigid. In this alarming state, she told her family members, who were in the room with her, about the traumatic incident which had occurred between her and Bob McNeal- an incident of which none of them yet had any knowledge. When Esther recovered, her family members told her what she had said. Although Esther had no recollection of making the confession, she tearfully admitted that the story was true.

Shortly after this incident, Jane observed that the mysterious knocking often seemed to correspond with things that they said, as if the invisible agent that made the sounds could hear and understand them. Dan decided to test this theory and asked the mysterious force to knock once for every person in the room. Sure enough, the entity responded with the correct number of raps, each of which were violent enough to shake the entire house.

Over the next three weeks, the family developed a method by which to communicate with the mysterious entity, which harassed them at random. In response to their closed-ended questions, the presence would knock once for a negative answer, thrice for an answer in the affirmative, and give two knocks when in doubt about a reply.

Throughout October, the Teed house was visited by several clergymen of different denominations who had heard of the strange activity and hoped to see it with their own eyes. A well-educated Baptist minister came away from the house convinced that neither Esther nor her family members were responsible for the manifestations. Instead, he theorized that the shock resultant of the Bob McNeal incident turned Esther into a sort of electric battery, and that Esther emitted invisible flashes of lightning which caused small thunderclaps. Another man of the cloth, this one a Wesleyan Methodist preacher, witnessed a number of manifestations at the Teed home. The most startling of these involved cold water in a bucket which, while standing on the kitchen table, began to bubble and froth as if it were boiling.

By the end of the month, folks were flocking to the Teed family home from all over the Maritimes, eager to witness the manifestations. Some came away believing the whole thing to be a hoax. Others thought that Esther was somehow hypnotizing people in order to make them see and hear what she wanted them to. Most, however, left with the unsettling conviction that the manifestations were genuine.

The manifestations continued with casual frequency until December, whereupon Esther Cox contracted diphtheria. During the two weeks it took for her to recover from her illness, the manifestations ceased entirely. Upon her recovery, Esther made a trip to Sackville, New Brunswick, to visit another of her sisters who was married. During the two weeks she spent in Sackville, neither her sister’s house nor the Teed home experienced any strange activity.

Upon Esther’s return to the Teed cottage, she and Jane began sleeping in a different room, hoping that this might put a stop to the affair. Instead, the activity got even worse. In addition to producing loud noises and hurling objects around the house, the entity began dropping lit matches from the ceiling of Ester and Jane’s bedroom at night- a phenomena which all of the family members witnessed. On one occasion, while Dan, Olive, Jane, and Esther were in attendance, one of Esther’s dresses, which had been hanging from a nail on the door, rolled up by itself, travelled underneath the bed, and burst into flames. On another occasion, while Olive and Esther were alone in the house making butter, a fire started in the cellar. Unable to extinguish the inferno themselves, the women went out into the street and frantically called for help. A stranger whom they had never seen before ran to their rescue and smothered the fire with a mat from the dining room. Without waiting to be thanked, the man walked out the door and up the street, never to be seen by the family again.

In the ensuing weeks, the “ghost” began to speak to Esther, although only she could hear it. Then, one cold winter night, while the family was lounging in the parlour, Esther suddenly rose to her feet, a look of horror on her face, and pointed with a trembling hand to a corner of the room.

“Look there!” she croaked. “Look there! Can’t you see it? My God, it is the ghost! Don’t you all see him?”

The other family members did not. The ghost proceeded to speak to Esther, telling her that it would burn the house down unless she left that night. Although none of the other family members could hear the ghost, Dan Teed did not want to take any chances and asked a neighbour, who had expressed a great interest in the manifestations, if he and his wife would take in his misfortunate sister-in-law. The couple agreed, and Esther moved into the neighbours’ home that night.

Several weeks went by without incident. It seemed that Esther had finally ditched her invisible tormentor. Then one day, while she was scrubbing the floor in her new home, the brush she was using disappeared from her hand. She told the lady of the house what had happened, and she, the matron, and the lady’s daughter subsequently searched for the brush in vain. As soon as they decided to abandon the search, the brush fell from the ceiling, grazing Esther’s head.

Discounting this incident, six weeks went by without any major mischief. Then mysterious fires began to appear in the house, and the man of the house, not willing to run the risk of having his house incinerated, asked Esther to spend her days in the pub that he owned. Esther’s peevish appendage apparently followed her to this new location, and all manner of incredible manifestations soon began to take place in the pub, much to the amazement of the patrons. In one of the more notable of these incidents, a small pocket knife belonging to the neighbour’s son drove itself into Esther’s back. When the knife was removed and given back to the little boy, it flew through the air again and inserted itself into the same wound.

In the spring of 1879, Esther travelled to Saint John, New Brunswick, at the invitation of a certain military officer. During her three-week stay in the city, Esther was visited by a party of scientifically-minded gentlemen who developed a new method of communicating with Esther’s poltergeist. After asking the entity a question, they would recite the alphabet and wait for the thing to knock at the appropriate letter, repeating this procedure until the entire answer was spelled out. By this method, the poltergeist identified itself to them as “Bob Nickle”, and claimed that it had once worked a shoemaker. To the men’s astonishment, other spirits also began to make themselves known. One ghost identified herself as “Maggie Fisher”, while another called himself “Peter Cox”, and claimed that he was a relative of Esther’s who died about forty years prior. Later on, three more mild-mannered spirits made their presence known, identifying themselves as Mary Fisher (who said she was Maggie’s sister), Jane Nickle, and Eliza McNeal.

After a peaceful eight-week stay with a particular family who lived in the Nova Scotian countryside, Esther Cox returned to Amherst. The manifestations resumed immediately, as powerful as ever. At this point, an enterprising American actor named Walter Hubbell, who had just finished a theatrical tour in Newfoundland, moved in with the Teed family as a paying boarder in the hopes of documenting the manifestations (it is from Hubbell’s subsequent writings that most of the details of the ‘Great Amherst Mystery’, as he styled it, are known). Over the course of six weeks, Hubbell was pelted with inanimate objects, saw household items vanish and reappear as if dropped from the ceiling, watched objects levitate and translocate, and witnessed several fires break out spontaneously. All the antics had an air of mischief, as if the poltergeists were doing their best to annoy the guest and the family. Hubbell noted that the ghosts refrained from their devilry on the Sabbath.

Convinced that Esther was incapable of conducting the pranks herself, Hubbell began to converse with the poltergeists using the same technique the Teeds had developed. The ghosts accurately told him the time on his watch and guessed how many coins he had in his pocket. Hubbell then asked the spirits the following questions, which they answered with knocks:

Question: “Have you all lived on the earth?”

Answer: “Yes.”

Question: “Have you seen God?”

Answer: “No.”

Question: “Are you in Heaven?”

Answer: “No.”

Question: “Are you in Hell?”

Answer: “Yes.”

Question: “Have you seen the Devil?”

Answer: An emphatic “Yes”.

On June 28, 1878, the Teed house resounded to the sound of a trumpet. The strident noise continued throughout the day until, in the evening, a small silver trumpet fell from the ceiling into one of the rooms. Neither Hubbell nor any members of the Teed family had any idea where the trumpet came from. Although Hubbell later declared his intention to donate the instrument to a museum, the fate of this object, to the best of this author’s knowledge, remains a mystery to this day.

The manifestations increased in scope and intensity until, that summer, it was decided that Esther Cox had to leave the Teed home for everyone’s sake. After embarking on a brief speaking tour with Walter Hubbell, during which she was heckled by audience members who believed her to be a fraud, Esther Cox went to live in the home of a friend of the Teed family. Shortly after her arrival, the family’s barn burned down and Esther was accused of arson. She was subsequently sentenced to four months in prison, but was released after one month on account of good behavior. After her release, Esther married a man who had come to visit her during her imprisonment. Following her marriage, the poltergeist activity stopped for good.

 

Thoughts?

What do you think, Canucks? Was the Great Amherst Mystery an elaborate hoax, or is there some truth to the tale of Esther Cox and the poltergeist of Amherst, Nova Scotia? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Sources

  • Article in the May 31, 1942 issue of the American Weekly Magazine, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
  • The Haunted House: A True Ghost Story (1879), by Walter Hubbell
  • Are You Sure There Are No Ghosts? By R.S. Lambert in the December 1, 1953 issue of Maclean’s magazine

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Ghosts of Ashcroft, BC

Ghosts of Ashcroft, BC

If you’ve ever made the road trip from Vancouver to Prince George, British Columbia, chances are that you’ve driven through the village of Ashcroft, located about an hour west of Kamloops in one of the most arid regions in all of Canada.

In addition to its 1,500 residents, Ashcroft is home to a number of chilling ghost stories. One of these tales tells of the frightening spectre of a Chinese woman whom travelers sometimes encounter at night on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway just south of town. Another Chinese ghost, this one the spirit of a friendly cook, is said to haunt (and occasionally bake ghostly bread in) Hat Creek House- a historic stagecoach hotel situated 20 minutes north of Ashcroft on the Cariboo Highway.

Of all the historic buildings located in and around Ashcroft, few have more ghost stories attached to them than the Sundance Guest Ranch, a dude ranch situated about ten minutes south of town off the Highland Valley Road.

The Phantom Prospectors

According to Stan Rowe- a nonagenarian, former Calgarian, and Sundance’s long-time owner- two of his former employees encountered a pair of phantoms one evening in 1978. That night, the two young ladies, both of whom worked as cooks in the ranch kitchen, headed out for a walk. The path they took was an old trail that skirted some of the desert hills ubiquitous in that part of the country- at that time, likely dark silhouettes in the twilight.

Suddenly, one of the women stopped dead in her tracks.

“Who are those men?” she asked, staring ahead down the trail.

“What men?” the other lady replied, following her co-worker’s gaze. All she could see in the gathering dusk was prairie grass, sagebrush, a few lodgepole pines, and a barbwire fence. To her, the trail ahead appeared empty and lifeless.

“Those two! Can’t you see them?” She giggled. “They look like they’re ready for a costume party.”

The lady proceeded to describe the men’s appearance to her companion who, for some reason, was having a hard time seeing them. Both were dressed in heavy boots, long canvas overcoats, and wide-brimmed hats that cast shadows over their bearded faces.

As she was speaking, the men turned off the trail, walked straight through the barbwire fence, and vanished into thin air.

The two women, the story goes, returned to the Sundance Ranch to relay the frightening tale to fellow staff members before catching the next bus to Vancouver.

Stan Rowe suspects that the strange apparitions that his employee saw that night in 1978 may have been the spirits of prospectors who came to Ashcroft more than a century earlier in search of fortune and adventure- participants in an event known today as the Cariboo Gold Rush. In order to make sense of Rowe’s theory, we’ll need a little backstory.

Trails to the Cariboo

Back in 1857, when British Columbia was an agglomeration of fur trading districts and British colonies, gold was discovered near the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers not far from present-day Lytton, BC (an hour’s drive southwest of Ashcroft). Immediately, veterans of the California Gold Rush of 1849, many of whom had settled in San Francisco, flocked to the new diggings and began to pan the creeks of the Fraser Canyon in what is now known as the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush. This event prompted the British Crown to consolidate many of its holdings in western North America into the Colony of British Columbia, a precursor to the province that we know and love today.

During the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, most prospectors made their way to the goldfields of the Fraser Canyon by one of two routes. The first route was the Fraser River itself- a waterway which was notoriously difficult to navigate. The second was the Douglas Road, an old Hudson’s Bay Company trail beginning in Port Douglas, BC, and ending in the settlement of Coyoosh Flat (present-day Lillooet); which British Columbia’s first governor, Sir James Douglas, reconstructed in 1858.

Of the thousands of prospectors who poured into the Fraser Canyon in the 1850s, only a few found gold of any significance. Many disenchanted gold seekers returned to California, while others, still hoping to strike it rich, pushed on into the interior.

In the 1860’s, some of these enterprising prospectors discovered gold in the Cariboo Plateau of south-central British Columbia. These discoveries launched the Cariboo Gold Rush, in which thousands of prospectors (chiefly of British, Canadian, and Chinese extraction) streamed into the British Columbian interior by way of the West Coast.

There were two main routes by which prospectors initially reached the Cariboo Goldfields. The first was a rugged and treacherous mule path called the River Trail, which wound through valleys and canyon bottoms, often running along cliff sides. The second was a rough freight wagon trail called the Old Cariboo Road, built by American contractor Gustavus Blin Wright in 1862. An extension of the Douglas Road, the Old Cariboo Road connected Coyoosh Flat (the terminus of the Douglas Road) with the settlement of Alexandria, nestled deep in Cariboo Country. Much of the road followed an old HBC thoroughfare called the Hudson’s Bay Brigade Trail. One of the more colourful stories to come out of the Old Cariboo Road involves a prospector named Frank Laumeister, who packed his supplies over the trail using Bactrian camels from the United States Camel Corps.

Shortly after the construction of the Old Cariboo Road, Sir James Douglas declared his intention to construct another freight wagon road which would comprise a new first leg on the journey to Cariboo Country; a thoroughfare which would make the less efficient Douglas Road obsolete. This road would begin in Yale, go through the Fraser Canyon, head up the Thompson River (a major tributary of the Fraser) and further up the Bonaparte River (a tributary of the Thompson) to the town of Clinton, a station on the Old Cariboo Road. The Royal Engineers of the British Army completed this project in 1865, constructing what is known today as the Cariboo Road.

The Birth of Ashcroft, BC

In 1862, before the construction of the Cariboo Road had commenced, two young, adventurous, upper class, Cambridge-educated English brothers named Clement and Henry Cornwall (the former being the future Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia) took a steamer to Victoria, BC. Like thousands of other adventurers, they crossed over to the mainland to the town of New Westminster (present-day Vancouver, BC), headed up the Fraser River, and trekked over the Douglas Road to Coyoosh Flat.

At Coyoosh Flat, the Cornwall brothers encountered a number of dejected prospectors who were returning emptyhanded from the Cariboo goldfields. After hearing their woes, the brothers reasoned that they would have better luck catering to the needs of prospectors than searching for gold themselves. Instead of following the crowd north, the Cornwall boys decided to venture off the beaten track and search for a good piece of land on which to set up shop.

After encountering several wild camels that Laumeister had turned loose- an incident which terrified their horses- the Cornwall brothers came to what Clement described in his diary as “a desirable looking flat watered by 2 streams with a fine surrounding range for cattle.” This area was located a short distance from the Thompson River, the Bonaparte River, and the so-called “River Trail”. Better yet, it lay along the proposed route of the Cariboo Trail. The brothers knew they had found a perfect location on which to settle, and so they travelled down the Thompson to Lytton, where they purchased the land from the regional magistrate.

Hiring former prospectors and local Shuswap Indians as labourers, the Cornwall brothers established a farm, a sawmill, a gristmill, a cattle ranch, and a roadhouse on their property, the latter which they named Ashcroft Manor after their birthplace in Gloucestershire, England. Following the construction of the Cariboo Trail, the Ashcroft Manor positively thrived, evolving into a favourite stopping place on the road to the Cariboo diggings and a sort of Mecca for British Columbia’s English gentry. By the late 1860s, Ashcroft Manor was famous for its foxhound kennels, its coyote hunting parties (which were modeled after the traditional British fox hunt), and its horse racing competitions, and was said to serve the finest liquor east of Victoria.

In 1884, the Canadian Pacific Railway was built across the Thompson River not far from the Ashcroft Manor. Almost overnight, the village of Ashcroft sprang up around the Cornwall brothers’ property. Due to the proximity of the railway, Ashcroft soon eclipsed Yale as the gateway to the Cariboo. Several years later, during the Klondike Gold Rush, Ashcroft served as the trail head of an all-Canadian route to the Yukon goldfields.

Considering Ashcroft’s beginnings, is it possible that the ghostly men whom Stan Rowe’s employee encountered in 1978 were the spirits of prospectors once destined for the Cariboo goldfields? Maybe they were the shades of bygone guests of the Ashcroft Manor. Or perhaps they were the ghosts of Clement and Henry Cornwall themselves.

The Ghostly Indian Girl

Another ghost story connected with the Sundance Ranch has its roots in a roundup conducted in the 1980’s or early ‘90s in which eighteen guests of the Sundance Ranch were invited to run cattle to a northerly pasture.

“We’d been rounding up cattle when a big downpour rolled in,” Stan Rowe told a reporter. Seeking shelter from the rain, the riders headed for a Sundance barn located several miles away.

When they finally reached the safety of the barn, all but one guest was accounted for. A short time later, this tardy patron, a sober-minded businessman, caught up with the party, a strange expression on his face.

“What kept you?” Rowe asked.

The businessman removed his Stetson to scratch his scalp. “This Indian girl,” he said. He proceeded to tell Rowe and the other guests about a Shuswap girl he encountered after being separated from the main group. The girl was dressed in a buckskin gown and was holding a string of trout. She had asked the businessman if he knew the way to the main trail, and invited him to have dinner with her.

Before the businessman could reply, a bolt of lightning obliterated a nearby tree. Thoroughly spooked, his horse bucked him off and galloped towards a nearby copse. The man raced after his horse, and by the time returned, the Indian girl was gone.

Rowe informed the bewildered businessman that, according to local legend, the ghost of a 19th Century Indian woman whose husband had drowned while fishing was said to haunt the area. Some believe that if you accept her dinner invitation, you won’t return.

Lightning Storms and Indian Ghosts

Curiously, the tale of the businessman’s encounter is not the only Canadian anecdote involving lightning strikes and vanishing Indian ghosts. Nearly a century prior, Cecil Denny, an officer of the original North West Mounted Police, claimed to have had a similar experience in a thicket near Fort Macleod, Alberta.

One afternoon in the summer of 1875, while fishing on the Oldman River, Denny found himself caught in a rainstorm. After tying his boat up to a cottonwood, he heard the faint sound of an Indians singing to the beat of a drum. Hoping to shelter himself from the storm, he made his way towards the sound.

After stumbling through the rain, Denny came to a clearing in a thicket in which he found a cluster of Indian teepees. Immediately, the Mountie knew that something was amiss. Although the wind was howling violently, it seemed to have no effect on the teepees nor the Indians who moved about them. The fires within the teepees shone through their openings with an eerie brightness.

All of a sudden, a lightning bolt struck a nearby tree. When the Mountie recovered his senses, the Indian village had disappeared.

Considering the tales of Cecil Denny and the guest of the Sundance Ranch, it is interesting to note that people who claim to have encountered ghosts often report an accompanying chill or a sensation of being suddenly sapped of energy. Some of those who have studied such encounters have theorized that ghosts might require energy in order to make themselves known. Lightning, which features in both of the aforementioned ghost stories, is believed to contain a whopping 5 billion joules per bolt- more than enough energy, one would think, to achieve such a purpose.

 

 

Sources

  • Ranch Near Abandoned Supply Trail Is Rich With History- And Spirits; in the May22, 1994 issue of the New Haven Register; courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
  • Ghosts II: More True Stories From British Columbia (1997), by Robert C. Belyk
  • The Story of the Ghost of the Chinese Cook, by Esther Darlington MacDonald in the October 15, 2914 issue of the Ashcroft-Cache Creek Journal
  • Ashcroft House on the Cariboo Road, in the March 15, 2013 issue of the BC Gold Rush Press: Stories of the Fraser River & Cariboo Gold Rush
  • The Early Years of Ashcroft Manor; by Edward Philip Johnson; Summer 1970
  • Ashcroft; by John R. Stuart; in the March 4, 2015 issue of The Canadian Encyclopedia
  • The Cree Ghost Village of Fort Macleod, Alberta, by Hammerson Peters

 

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The Treasure of Shellbird Island

The Treasure of Shellbird Island

Yes, b’y, there are few places in Canada richer in local folklore than the eastern shores of Newfoundland. The town of Torbay, for example, on the east coast of the Avalon Peninsula, is said to be haunted by a stygian hellhound with glowing red eyes- a Maritime counterpart to the legendary ‘black dog’ of the British Isles. Bell Island, in Conception Bay, is believed by some to be home to a phantom hag, a haunted mine, and a band of malevolent faeries. And St. John’s Harbour, according to the journal of 16th/17th Century English colonist Sir Richard Whitbourne, was once the domain of a mermaid. Such a rich folkloric tradition ought to be expected in the eastern half of this most storied of provinces, first to be discovered by Old World explorers and last to join the Canadian Confederation. After all, the history of eastern Newfoundland is as colourful as the motley facades that characterize St. John’s “Jellybean Row”.

The Rock’s west coast, on the other hand, is another story entirely. For centuries, Newfoundland’s western shores comprised a vast no-man’s land- a dark, desolate terra incognita devoid of any semblance of permanent settlement. Archaeological evidence (or lack thereof) indicates that the Dark Age Viking explorers who established a colony on the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula at the turn of the last millennia likely steered their longships clear of the Strait of Belle Isle- the gateway to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which separates western Newfoundland from the Labrador Peninsula. 16th Century Basque whalers and cod fishermen who plied their trade in Red Bay, on the southeastern shores of Labrador, avoided lingering in the area anywhere north of Channel-Port aux Basques. Even the local Mi’kmaq and Beothuk First Nations appear to have largely shunned Newfoundland’s west coast prior to the advent of the fur trade. Although Breton explorer Jacques Cartier mapped the region in 1534, as did British Captain James Cook in 1767, the western shores of Newfoundland (sometimes called the ‘French Shore’ on account of France’s right to fish there from 1783-1904) remained sparsely populated until the mid-19th Century.

In spite of its shadowy past, the west coast of Newfoundland, with its tiny fishing communities, retains its own unique brand of folklore. Give a “bayman” a bottle of Screech and he might tell you the tale of the ghost ship of Bonne Bay- a phantom schooner which appears from time to time with shining lights and nary a soul aboard… before vanishing into thin air. Lark Harbour, tucked away in the Bay of Islands, is rumoured to be haunted by the spirits of a shipwrecked crew whose ghostly cries carry on the wind during storms. And then there is the tale of Shellbird Island and its mysterious treasure, the most famous regional folktale of all.

The Old Man in the Mountain

If you travel up the Bay of Islands from Lark Harbour, past the city of Corner Brook and up the Humber River, you’ll come to a small ait, or river island, known as Shellbird Island. This isle is overlooked by a 40-foot-tall cliff bearing a snarl of crags which bear close resemblance to the weathered countenance of an old bearded sailor- a natural landmark which locals fondly refer to as the Old Man in the Mountain.

Legend has it that the Old Man in the Mountain is privy to a centuries-old secret, namely the location of a treasure which lies buried on Shellbird Island. There are a number of different stories which purport to explain the origin of this mysterious treasure. One involves a Spanish galleon laden with Peruvian silver and Inca gold which foundered off the coast of Newfoundland during a storm. Another revolves around Eric Cobham and Maria Lindsey- a semi-mythical, 18th Century, Bonnie-and-Clyde-like Maritime pirate couple. But the most popular tale, first told many years ago by an ancient Nova Scotian sailor to a resident of the Bay of Islands, features a notorious “arch-pirate” of the Atlantic by the name of Peter Easton.

Captain Peter Easton

Although not nearly as well-known as many of his Caribbean contemporaries, Peter Easton, a Newfoundland-based buccaneer, was perhaps the most materially successful pirate to ever sail the high seas.

Little is known of Easton’s early life, although it is believed he was born around 1570 in England. He evidently established himself as a proficient mariner, as in 1602, Elizabeth I, Queen of England, commissioned him with protecting the English fishing fleet in Newfoundland. At that time, England and Spain were engaged in what is now known as the Anglo-Spanish War. Although the English Navy under the late Sir Francis Drake had effectively repelled the Spanish Armada at the Battle of Gravelines back in 1588, the Spanish Navy remained a formidable force, and the crews of Spanish galleons would do their best capture or sink any English vessels they encountered on the Atlantic.

For a year, Peter Easton performed his duty as a licenced privateer, capturing or sinking any Spanish or Basque vessels he believed posed a threat to Newfoundland’s English fishing fleet. In the spring of 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died and was succeeded by her first cousin once removed, King James I. The king immediately brokered a peace with Spain, ending the 19-year-long Anglo-Spanish War, and in doing so, revoked the licences of all English privateers. Rather than pursue a new legitimate career in England, Easton and his crew decided to continue doing that at which they excelled: looting Spanish vessels. And thus, Peter Easton became a pirate.

No longer beholden to English law, Easton proved to be a ruthless captain, routinely killing or jettisoned fellow shipmates with whom he took issue. Ruling over his crew with an iron fist, the ex-privateer led his pirates on raids all across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, preying on Spanish treasure galleons, Barbary corsairs, and even English merchant vessels, terrorizing sailors from Morocco to the Caribbean. At one point, he even took his business to the Bristol Channel, the inlet which separates Wales from England’s South West Peninsula. Right under the nose of King James I, Peter Easton and his pirates extorted protection money from English seamen before finally being driven back to Newfoundland by Sir Henry Mainwaring, a Captain of the Royal Navy who would later go on to become a fellow Newfoundland-based pirate.

In around 1611, Peter Easton and his crew established a fort at Harbour Grace, one of North America’s oldest towns, situated on Newfoundland’s Conception Bay on the Avalon Peninsula. In 1612, while Easton himself was in the Caribbean, a company of French Basques fishermen captured the fort. When Peter Easton and his crew returned from their voyage, the Basques sailed out to meet them. In the ensuing battle, which took place in the waters off Harbour Grace Island, Easton and his pirates defeated the Basque fleet, incurring forty seven casualties in the process. The bodies of Easton’s pirates were buried on Newfoundland near Harbour Grace, their cemetery comprising one of the only known pirate graveyards in North America.

Later that year, Peter Easton captured an English vessel off Ferryland, Newfoundland, another of his favourite haunts. The captain of this captured ship was none other than Sir Richard Whitbourne, the colonist who claimed to have encountered the aforementioned mermaid of St. John’s Harbour two years prior, and who also happened to be a representative of the English Crown. Easton tried in vain to convince Whitbourne to join him and his pirates, of which there were now about fifteen hundred. Instead, Whitbourne offered to seek clemency for Easton and his crew at the court of King James, and was allowed to do so after 11 weeks of imprisonment.

Following his release, Whitbourne returned to England, where he learned that the king had already issued a pardon to Easton and his men. Before he could convey this information to Easton, however, the so-called “arch-pirate” and five hundred of his buccaneers sailed to the Azores islands off the coast of Portugal, where they captured three Spanish galleons packed with Bolivian silver- a truly enormous prize.

Peter Easton retired from the pirate life in around 1614. He settled in the village of Villefranche-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera, where he married, acquired a palace, bought the title “Marquis of Savoy”, and lived like a king until his death in around 1620.

The Legend

According to legend, one variety of seagoing vessels that Peter Easton and his crew preyed upon while headquartered in Newfoundland were fur-bearing French merchant ships fresh from the ports of Quebec City and Montreal. During one such plundering operation, Easton and his men were spotted by a massive French man-of-war.

Painfully cognisant of the superior firepower of the French warship, Easton and his crew fled north to Newfoundland. They were pursued by the French marines. In an effort to evade the larger vessel, the pirates sailed up Newfoundland’s west coast, into the Bay of Islands, and further up the Humber River.

In the hold of Easton’s ship were three chests filled with gold- the spoils of a previous raid. Loathe to allow the gold to fall into the hands of the French, Easton ordered his first mate to bury it in a safe location nearby. Accompanied by another pirate, the first mate headed further up the Humber in a smaller boat with the three chests and a pair of shovels.

Several miles upriver, the first mate spotted the Old Man in the Mountain- the face of an aged sailor naturally graven into the cliff side. Hoping to use the landmark as a marker, the mate decided to bury the treasure on what is now known as Shellbird Island, the river isle upon which the Old Man gazed. With the help of his companion, he began digging three different pits on the island into which the treasure chests were to be interred.

In those days, the legend says, it was customary for pirates to bury a fresh corpse along with their loot so that the spirit of the dead man might guard the treasure until their return. In accordance with this custom, the first mate waited until all three holes were dug before drawing his flintlock and dispatching his hapless companion. The accomplished, the mate proceeded to bury the three chests, one of them with the dead man, and conceal the locations of the deposits before getting back into his boat and rowing downstream.

As fate would have it, the first mate never made it back to the ship. At a particularly turbulent section of the Humber known as Devil’s Dancing Pool, he capsized his rowboat and drowned, taking the secret of the treasure’s location with him to his watery grave.

Legend has it that Shellbird Island has yielded two of her three treasure chests. One was purportedly discovered by a group of treasure hunters in the late 1800s, her contents shared in secret. Another was dug up around 1934. As for the third chest, local lore maintains that it still lies somewhere beneath Shellbird Island, promising untold riches to any treasure hunter determined enough to find it and brave enough to defy the ghost of the pirate that guards it.

 

Sources

  • Newfoundland Ghosts Linger; by John Lacy; in the Monday, September 1, 1975 issue of the Hartford Courant; courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
  • Ghost Stories of Newfoundland and Labrador (2010), by Edward Butts
  • The West Coast of Newfoundland; by Bill Crant (April 29, 2000) and Terry Piercey (August 2002); provided by Newfoundland’s Grand Banks Site
  • The Forgotten Bay: A Historical Survey of the Settlement of Lark Habour and York Harbour in the Outer Bay of Islands, Newfoundland (July 1997), by Stuart L. Harvey
  • Pirate Gold! The Man in the Mountain & Corner Brook’s Treasure Island; by Dale Jarvis; in August 18, 2016 issue of NLUnexplained.ca
  • No Colony for Old Men: Peter Easton in Conception Bay; in the June 1, 2017 issue of ConceptionBayMuseum.Wordpress.com

 

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The Cursed Lighthouse of Bird Rock

The Cursed Lighthouse of Bird Rock

Every day, freighters passing through the Cabot Strait- the waterway between Newfoundland and Cape Breton, which separates the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the greater Atlantic Ocean- float by a bleak, windswept isle known as Rocher aux Oiseaux, or Bird Rock. This five-acre islet is an outlying member of the Magdalen Islands, a hook-shaped archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence which, despite being closer to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, actually belongs to the province of Quebec.

In the summer, Bird Rock- along with its northwesterly sister, a nearby cluster of sea rocks called Rocher aux Margaux (which bears the name that Jacques Cartier gave to Bird Rock in June 1534; “margaux” being the 16th Century French word for gannets), or the Little Bird Rocks- is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Back in 1917, the island and its surrounding waters was designated the Bird Rocks Bird Sanctuary, making it the oldest migratory bird sanctuary in Canada. Today, in the height of summer, nearly every nook and cranny of its 30-metre-tall red sandstone cliffs is occupied by some variety of migratory seabird, from petrels to gulls to razor-billed auks. In addition to being a refuge for some of the North Atlantic’s most threatened avian species, ornithologists estimate that Bird Rock annually hosts up to 47,000 Northern gannets- nearly a quarter of this species’ population in North America.

One writer who visited the isle in the summer of 1932 recalled an incident which serves to illustrate the completeness of the dominion which Bird Rock’s feathered denizens hold over the place in the summer months:

“Suddenly, a great swarm of gannets took wing with a rumble like a thunderstorm. An enormous white cloud of them, hundreds of yards in extent, swooped overhead. It had the odd effect of a snowstorm suspended in mid-air. So dense were they that a battery of machine guns would have had no effect.”

Every autumn, Bird Rock’s eponymous avian occupants migrate south to warmer climes, leaving Rocher aux Oiseaux silent and desolate. The strident squawks which characterized the spring and summer are replaced by the softer yet equally-incessant crashing of the waves against the island’s circumferential cliffs, and the pervasive stench of bird droppings which hung heavily on the summer air gives way to an equally-heavy winter mist, punctuated by the occasional ghostly wail of a foghorn. In this gloomier state, Bird Rock seems more accordant with its morbid history and the shroud of superstition that surrounds it. For atop grassy plateau of Rocher aux Oiseaux, so say the seafaring folk of the Magdalen Islands, dwells a terrible curse.

The Lighthouse

Since the earliest years of New France, Bird Rock and rest of the Magdalen Islands posed a deadly hazard to the crews of European sailing ships entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Atlantic Ocean. Vessels sailing through the Strait of Cabot at night, or in heavy fog, ran the risk of smashing to matchwood against the merciless cliffs of the Magdalens, and throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, hundreds of ships met their ends in this manner. Passengers and crewmembers aboard these ill-fated vessels who managed to avoid the one-way trip to Davy Jones’ Locker climbed atop the islands and anxiously awaited their rescue, often in vain. Today, most Madelinots, as inhabitants of the Magdalen Islands are called, are descendants of these shipwreck survivors, and many of the islands’ oldest buildings are constructed from timber salvaged from the ships she claimed.

In 1827, a Captain of the Royal Navy named Edward Boxer wrote the following to the Grand Admiral of Maritime Britain:

“I have found a great need for lighthouses in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. On this sea, navigation is so dangerous because of strong and irregular currents, and there is not a single lighthouse in all the Gulf. It is truly lamentable to find so many shipwrecks at different places on the coast… the number of lost lives is very large and certainly incalculable…”

It would be over four decades before Boxer’s recommendation was acted upon. In 1860, John Page, the Chief

Engineer for the Province of Canada’s Department of Public Works, proposed the erection of a lighthouse on Rocher aux Oiseaux, as Bird Rock was the closest of the Magdalen Islands to the Laurentian Channel- the underwater valley which follows the natural route through the Cabot Strait. In 1869, the fledgling Dominion of Canada decided to follow Page’s advice. That year, contractors sailed out to the island and set about constructing a 15.2-metre-tall wooden lighthouse on its plateau, somehow managing to haul their supplies up and over the Rock’s 30-metre walls. Finally, in 1870, Peter Mitchell, a Father of Confederation who served as the Dominion’s Minister of Marine and Fisheries, reported:

“I feel much pleasure in stating that at Bird Rocks, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence- the most difficult place in the Dominion on which to erect a lighthouse, owing to the surf which continually breaks around it, and the danger of approaching it and effecting a landing thereon- the effects of the Department have been entirely successful in erecting a lighthouse and buildings in connection therewith.”

The Prediction

The story of the early years of the Bird Rock Lighthouse is shrouded in mystery. According to legend, the lighthouse’s first keeper was a Frenchman named Jacques Guitte. After tending the lonely lighthouse for two years, “solitude,” as a contemporary newspaper article put it, “preyed so upon his mind that he went insane.”

Before being hauled away to an asylum, Guitte is said to have uttered the following prophecy:

“No man will keep this lighthouse for more than ten years without meeting misfortune.”

None but the local Acadians of the Magdalen Islands thought there was any chance that Guitte’s prediction might come true.

Peter Whalen and his Son

Guitte’s successor, a man named George Preston, did not tend the Bird Rock Lighthouse long enough to put his predecessor’s prediction to the test. After only a few months on Rocher aux Oiseaux, Preston was removed from his position- according to some versions of the story, in a straightjacket- on the premise that he was mentally infirm.

Preston was immediately succeeded by Peter (or perhaps Patrick; not to be confused with the alleged assassin of a similar name who was hanged four years prior at the Ottawa Jail gallows) Whalen, who moved to the island with his wife and son in 1873. That same year, government workers installed a cannon on the island, which was to be fired at regular intervals during heavy fog in order to warn ships to steer clear of Bird Rock and the Magdalen Islands.

For seven long years, the Whalen family dutifully served as the keepers of the Bird Rock Lighthouse. Then, one day in early April, 1880, Peter Whalen, the former’s son, and an assistant lighthouse keeper named Thomas Thivierge went hunting for harp seals, one of the few pastimes that their occupation afforded them. To the dismay of Mrs. Whalen, who was left to tend the lighthouse in the men’s absence, the three men failed to return that night.

The following day, Thomas Thivierge, sopping wet and chilled to the bone, stumbled onto Bird Rock and staggered towards the lighthouse. Through chattering teeth, he informed a distraught Mrs. Whalen that her husband and son had perished the previous night. While the men were out on the water hunting for seals, a storm had blown in quite unexpectedly and tossed the three of them onto an ice flow. Unable to return to their boat before dark, the men decided to spend the night on the ice. Before dawn, Peter Whalen and his son had froze to death.

The Tragedy of 1881

Peter Whalen and his family were succeeded by Charles Chiasson, a local Madelinot from the nearby island of Havre-aux-Maisons. In 1880, Chiasson, his wife, and his son Cyrice moved onto Bird Rock. They would not last two years.

In the summer of 1881, a friend of the Chiasson family named Paul Chenell came to Bird Rock for a visit. He was accompanied by his ten-year-old daughter Sarah and a man named Jean Turbide- a relative of the assistant keeper, Telesphore Turbide.

August 23, 1881, was a particularly foggy day on Bird Rock, and Charles Chiasson was obliged to fire the fog cannon. As this was the first occasion he had to use the device since his guests’ arrival, Chiasson invited Paul, Sarah, and Jean to watch the procedure.

Chiasson’s usual custom when preparing the fog cannon was to load the gun with powder retrieved from a barrel kept in a storage shed. For some reason, however, on this particular occasion, the powder barrel stood a short distance from away the cannon with its lid open. Without thinking to move the keg back to the shed and out of harm’s way, Chiasson decided to fire the cannon.

When Chiasson lit the fuse, a spark landed in the powder keg and a tremendous explosion rocked the island. Chiasson and his son, Cyrice, who had assisted with the procedure, were killed instantly. Paul Chenell was severely wounded, and succumbed to his injuries several hours later. Jean and Telesphore Turbide escaped with minor injuries despite Jean’s having been blown off a cliff and into the sea by the blast’s shockwave, and young Sarah Chenell, though frightened half to death, was physically unharmed.

The Tenure of Telesphore Turbide

Following the death of Charles Chiasson, assistant keeper Telesphore Turbide was put in charge of the Bird Rock Lighthouse. In 1887, he oversaw the construction of a new, six-sided, 11.9-metre-tall wooden tower.

By the summer of 1891, Turbide had manned Rocher aux Oiseaux for nearly a decade- far long than any previous keeper. It seemed that he was well on his way to beating the curse of Bird Rock. If he managed to serve until August 23rd, the tenth anniversary of Chiasson’s death, without serious mishap, Guitte’s chilling prophecy would prove nothing more than the deluded ravings of a madman.

On June 24, 1891, two months before this deadline, the island decided to exact its toll on the hapless keeper. It was a foggy day, and Telesphore Turbide was obliged to fire the cannon. The lighthouse keeper poured a charge of powder down the barrel, tamped it down, and lit the cannon’s fuse. Mysteriously, the cannon failed to fire. Thinking that he may have done a poor job tamping the powder, Turbide inserted the cannon’s ramrod back into the muzzle. At that moment,

the cannon suddenly discharged, hurling the keeper twenty-five feet across the plateau and blowing off most of his right hand. A shell-shocked Turbide doctored his mangled hand as best he could, flagged down a passing ship, and went to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for medical treatment.

Following his recovery, Telesphore Turbide returned to his post at Bird Rock, where he would serve for another five years. In 1895, he managed to convince Canada’s Department of Marine and Fisheries to replace the dangerous fog cannon with a safer cotton powder cartridge gun.

Turbide’s third and final brush with the island’s curse took place in September 1896. One day, while receiving a shipment of supplies from the mainland, the crane used to haul the cargo onto the island’s plateau fell on top of him, crushing his legs. Not daring to defy the curse any longer, Turbide resigned from his position and was granted a lifetime annual allowance of $180 by the Canadian government. In total, Telesphore Turbide served an incredible fifteen years as head lighthouse keeper of Rocher aux Oiseaux- longer than any keeper before or since.

Arsene Turbide and the Tragedy of 1897

Following Telesphore Turbide’s resignation, a man named Pierre Bourque was appointed as the next keeper of the Bird Rock Lighthouse. As Bourque was unable to take the position until spring, it was arranged for Telesphore’s cousin, Arsene Turbide, to man the lighthouse that winter.

In March 1897, shortly before Bourque’s scheduled arrival, Arsene Turbide, 17-year-old Charles Turbide (Telesphore’s son), and assistant keeper Damien Cormier decided to go seal hunting. Their fate was eerily similar to that of Peter Whalen and his party, who froze to death on an ice floe seventeen years prior.

Like their ill-fated predecessors, the three men were beset by an unexpected storm. Charles Turbide and Damien Cormier did not survive the night.

Miraculously, Arsene Turbide managed to make his way across sixty miles of sea ice to the fishing community of Bay St. Lawrence, Nova Scotia, on Cape Breton Island- a journey which he accomplished in three days. Turbide was taken to a hospital, where he expressed deep concern for the wife of Damien Cormier, who was alone on Bird Rock. A government icebreaker was subsequently dispatched to rescue Cormier’s widow.

Arsene Turbide died in bed fifteen days after arriving at Bay St. Lawrence.

Pierre and Wilfrid Bourque

In May 1897, two months after the tragedy, Pierre Bourque took up his post at Bird Rock as scheduled. Almost immediately, he was plagued by misfortune. After only a few weeks, his assistant keeper, a man named Hippolyte Melanson, injured himself severely while firing the fog cartridge gun. Following the accident, Melanson was replaced by Bourque’s son Wilfrid.

In 1905, after eight years of service, Pierre decided to relinquish his position as head lighthouse keeper to Wilfrid. The younger Bourque, whose wife and children moved onto the island with him, made it his mission to improve conditions on Bird Rock. In 1906, he replaced the fog cartridge cannon with a far safer three-inch diaphone fog signal. In 1908, he reinforced the lighthouse with concrete and raised its height to 15.2 metres. That same year, he asked the Department of Marine and Fisheries to extend a telegraph line to Bird Rock. His request was denied.

On March 11, 1912, after tending the Bird Rock Lighthouse for seven years, Wilfrid Bourque grabbed his shotgun and headed out to hunt some seals he spotted in an opening in the ice not far from the island. When Bourque failed to return, his wife sent assistant keeper Daniel Turbide (a relative of Telephore and Arsene) and her nephew, Elphege Bourque, to search for him. The two men found Bourque’s lifeless body standing upright in the water near the edge of the ice. Bourque’s poor widow was forced to both perform her motherly duties and tend the lighthouse in her husband’s stead for ten days while waiting for relief.

Elphege Bourque

Wilfrid Bourque was succeeded by his nephew, Elphege- now a seasoned lighthouse veteran.

While serving under his uncle, Elphege had grown weary of the simple unperishable fare that was part and parcel of lighthouse life. One day, he decided to bring a milk cow to the island. With considerable difficulty, the keeper managed to transport the animal to the Rock and hoist it up onto the plateau. Shortly thereafter, Elphege had his second encounter with the curse of Rocher aux Oiseaux; after only six weeks, his cow went insane and jumped over a cliff to its death.

Elphege managed to tend the lighthouse at Bird Rock for ten quiet years, enduring no greater tragedy than the loss of his milk cow. It seemed as if the curse had finally left Rocher aux Oiseaux for good.

Suddenly, as if to make up for its decade of indolence, the jinx of Bird Rock reared its ugly head once again and lashed out at its tenants with a nigh unprecedented ferocity.

In the fall of 1922, Elphege Bourque decided to take a vacation. He left the lighthouse in the charge of his brother Albin and assistants Philias Richard and Octave Langford. Shortly after Albin arrived on the island to relieve his brother, all three men became deathly ill, apparently having consumed rainwater contaminated with diseased bird droppings. The men managed to flag down a ship destined for Charlottetown, but by that time it was too late. Albin died en route to Prince Edward Island, Richard died shortly thereafter, and Langford became paralyzed for life from the waist down.

The End of the Curse

Following the death of his brother, Elphege Bourque left Bird Rock, never to return. Lighthouse duties were immediately assumed by a family of Acadians by the name Arsenault.

The first Arsenault to man the Bird Rock Lighthouse was J. Montague Arsenault. Montague served as head keeper for fifteen years, soundly belying Guitte’s prediction. After the successful five-year tenure of a man named J. Marc Richard, another Arsenault named Alfred A. took up his predecessor’s mantle. One writer who visited Rocher aux Oiseaux in 1950 wrote:

“When Alfred Arsenaut [sic] had finished telling me the story of Bird Rock, I asked him if he worried about the prophecy. He shrugged.

“As I looked at Arsenaut’s [sic] quiet, sturdy face I had the sudden thought: ‘This quiet man can defeat the prophecy!’ Only time will tell.”

Sure enough, Alfred Arsenault served a mercifully uneventful twelve years as head keeper of the Bird Rock Lighthouse before retiring in 1955.

Aside from a lightning-induced fire which reduced some of the service buildings to ashes in 1955, when the lighthouse was under the care of Alfred’s relative Elzear Arsenault, Bird Rock never again subjected its residents to another catastrophe. Following Elzear’s resignation in 1959, eleven different keepers successfully manned the lighthouse of Rocher aux Oiseaux, none of them serving for more than four years.

In 1967, the lighthouse was replaced by a new 31-foot hexagonal concrete tower, and in 1988, the tower was automated, leaving Bird Rock for the birds. Today, the lighthouse of Rocher aux Oiseaux operates on its own, as if manned by ghostly keepers. Its eerie desolation serves as a chilling reminder of the deadly curse which haunted its inhabitants for more than fifty years.

 

Sources

  • Haunted Island: Strange Legend Clings to Lonely Bird Rock; by Richard Harrington; in the November 19, 1950 issue of the Washington Post’s supplement magazine Parade; courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
  • Bird Rock; by Beverley Owen; in the January 1, 1933 issue of Maclean’s magazine
  • The Mysterious Magdalens; by Beverley Owen; in the December 1, 1932 issue of Maclean’s magazine
  • The Cursed Lightstation of Rocher aux Oiseaux: A Malicious Prank of Nature; by Jeremy D’Entremont; in the May 2004 issue of the Lighthouse Digest Magazine
  • Rocher aux Oiseaux (Bird Rock) Lighthouse, on LighthouseFriends.com
  • Magdalen Islands Shipwrecks, by Rupert Taylor in the August 14, 2017 issue of OwlCation.com

 

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The Little Green Men of Steep Rock Lake

The Little Green Men of Steep Rock Lake

Near the southern border of Northwestern Ontario, about three kilometres northwest of the tiny town of Atikokan, lies a body of water known as Steep Rock Lake. In 1950, this remote woodland retreat, nestled in the heart of what locals proudly refer to as the “Canoeing Capital of Canada”, was the setting of a bizarre story that has intrigued ufologists (as students of the UFO phenomenon are known) for nearly seventy years.

The Town of Steep Rock

Back in 1938, an Ontario prospector named Julian Cross discovered that Steep Rock Lake lay atop a rich deposit of hematite- a type of iron ore. During WWII, when the Allied forces were in desperate need of steel, the river that fed the lake was diverted and much of the original Steep Rock Lake was drained (the river’s diversion created a web of new floodwater channels, which included a new Steep Rock Lake). That accomplished, miners set to work blasting and extracting the much-needed iron ore, transforming the former lake bed into a vast open-pit quarry known as the Steep Rock Iron Mine.

From the 1940s until the Steep Rock Iron Mine’s dissolution in 1980, a boomtown called Steep Rock thrived just outside the quarry a short distance from the town of Atikokan. For much of this time, a monthly newspaper called the Steep Rock Echo, edited by the Mine’s Chief Chemist, B.J. Eyton, serviced the citizens of this transient mining town.

The Story

In September 1950, the Echo ran with a story entitled “Flying Saucer Base?” This story was submitted by an anonymous Mine employee whom Eyton described as “a thoroughly reliable citizen”.

“We have refrained from reporting this before,” the anonymous author began, “as people make so much fun of one who reports these things. However, all the bally-hoo about ‘flying saucers’ has passed, and people perhaps have time to think more calmly. Attached is what my wife and I saw in the dusk of the evening of July 2, 1950.”

The writer went on to describe how he and his wife, on this particular evening, were out fishing on Sawbill Bay, a body of water opposite the quarry from Steep Rock Lake (today, Sawbill Bay is known as Marmion Lake). After spending some time on the water, they paddled their canoe into a sheltered cove and pulled their craft up onto the beach.

“We had our snack and a thermos of tea,” the Mine employee wrote, “and were talking about getting home, as it would be dark by the time we landed, when we felt the air vibrate. My first thought was blasting, as it was like a mine blast that pushes the air; my next thought was that it couldn’t be, as we were too far away.”

Curious as to the source of the shockwave, the man climbed to the top of a nearby rock so that he could get a better view of the lake. To his surprise, he found himself staring at large, shiny, saucer-like object resting on the water’s surface about a quarter of a mile away. Its edge was studded with round, black-edged “ports”, each of them spaced about four feet apart from one another.

Careful not to alarm her, the man motioned for his wife to join him on top of the rock. The couple watched with fear and fascination as a hatch on the top of the saucer opened up and ten small strange-looking creatures crawled out onto the roof.

“These figures I estimated to be roughly 3 ft. 6 ins. to 4 feet high and all were the same size,” the man wrote. “All were dressed the same, with a shiny metallic substance over the chest, while the legs and arms were of a darker material. It was impossible to see their faces- if they had any- it looked like blank surface to me.”

As the creatures went about their mysterious business, an antenna-like object rose up from the middle of the saucer until it reached a height of about eight feet. The antenna was capped with a hoop-like ring which rotated slowly from side to side, not unlike a periscope. To their horror, the couple realized that the ring appeared to be focusing on their location.

“We instinctively ducked at that moment…” the man wrote. “We believe to this day that we were shielded from the ray or whatever it was [by] the wall of rock we ducked behind.”

After some time had elapsed, the couple risked another peek at the saucer and its curious crew. They noticed that one of the creatures was apparently drawing in lake water with a bright green open-ended hose and discharging an equal quantity of water out the other end.

The couple retreated to safety again before deciding to take one final gander.

“The next time we looked,” the man wrote, “everything had disappeared from the surface of the machine and it was about 8 feet in the air, with a red-and-blue tinged-with-gold colour shining on the surface of the water… It tilted to about a 45o angle, there was a rush of wind (like the wind before a storm), a flash of yellow, red-blue and it was gone, heading northward, but faster than the eye could follow.”

Shaken to the core, the couple returned home and vowed to never visit that part of the lake again. Try as he might, however, the man could not get the image of the saucer out of his mind. Eventually, he decided to tell one of his friends about the incident. Intrigued, his friend agreed to accompany him to the cove at Sawbill Bay on the pretext of fishing, hoping to see the saucer for himself. The men brought cameras with them on this excursion, determined to capture the mysterious craft on film if it ever returned.

Unfortunately, the craft failed to appear. Undaunted, the friends made two more trips to the cove, each of which proved similarly fruitless. Eventually, they decided that they might have more luck rowing quietly along the shore. When that failed, they decided to cut across the Bay using the canoe’s outboard motor.

“It all happened in split seconds,” the man wrote. “There was the ‘Saucer’ in the same spot. I swung the boat into the wind, my friend made a dive for his camera, and I for mine, while trying to hold the boat into the wind. My hand was so stiff from the cold and holding the steering control that I couldn’t even feel the camera. My friend was trying to stand up, and in the excitement hold on while the boat bobbed up and down. The result was neither of us even had a chance of a picture. All my friend could keep repeating was, ‘Well by George at least I’ve seen it!’”

The anonymous storyteller finished his narrative by explaining that during this second encounter, he and his friend observed the little creatures performing the same operation with the green hose that he and his wife had witnessed on July 2. Apparently, the creatures discovered that they were being watched, as they hastily climbed into their saucer, which subsequently departed at tremendous speed.

At the end of his article, the man implied that the creature in charge of the hose operation did not make it into the craft in time, and tumbled into the lake when the saucer took off.

Intriguingly, following the publication of this story, the editor of the Steep Rock Echo received letters from citizens who claimed to have also had strange experiences at Sawbill Bay. One writer related that when he was leaving the lake one evening at dusk, he “heard a sound like the noise a flock of ducks make, and at the same time saw what [he] thought was a shooting-star flash across the bay.” The following week, while fishing in one of Sawbill’s coves, he discovered a number of dead fish floating in a patch of water that bore a curious greenish hue.

Another man came forward with an almost identical story. He informed the editor that, while returning home from the floodwaters at dusk, he saw what he thought to be a meteor streak down in the direction of Sawbill Bay and disappear. He also mentioned that the water in one of the inlets in upper Sawbill Bay had a strange, almost fluorescent green tinge, and that he was unable to catch any fish in that inlet despite that he had no trouble catching fish anywhere else in the lake.

Some letters to the editor were less charitable. One reader wrote, “Are you sure it was tea your correspondent was drinking, and not something stronger?”

The article was reprinted in the October 1950 issue of The Steep Rock Echo. In this edition, editor B.J. Eyton commented, in regards to the article:

“I cannot verify the story one way or the other. It was written by a senior employee of the mine. However, about that time flying saucers were seen by a number of people in this locality… Men in groups working in the mine at Steep Rock saw them at night, and many residents of the town of Atikokan gave eyewitness accounts of the saucers. They were seen in different localities all the way from here to the Lakehead cities of Fort William and Port Arthur 140 miles away. One was flashed b Canadian National Railways station operators all along the line until it reached here. Then it turned back again. There was not the slightest doubt in the minds of the eyewitnesses that what they had seen were flying saucers.”

International Attention

Since the Steep Rock Echo was a relatively obscure newspaper, the story of the flying saucer of Sawbill Bay was, for many years, largely confined to the memories of the citizens of Steep Rock and Atikokan. Then, in the 1960’s, a popular American writer and radio broadcaster named Frank Edwards got wind of the story, likely having read a reprinting of it in the February-March issue of the magazine Fate, and resurrected it on his radio program and in his 1966 book Flying Saucers- Serious Business. Other ufologists followed Edwards’ lead and began including the Steep Rock story in their own books and articles. In a few short years, the tale of the Steep Rock saucer and its mysterious crewmen transformed from a dim rural Canadian legend into a tabloid sensation with an international audience.

Debunking

In the winter of 1974, Canadian UFO researcher Robert T. Badgley wrote a letter to the president of Steep Rock Iron Mines in which he inquired about the flying saucer story. The president informed Badgley that the story was written by a Mine executive named Gordon Edwards (no relation to Frank), and that it was completely fictitious. According to the president, Edwards wrote the story for the amusement of his colleagues and the citizens of the remote towns of Steep Rock and Atikokan, and to mock contemporary accounts of encounters with little green men that appeared in newspapers from time to time. Edwards and others privy to the hoax were delighted and amused when larger media outlets picked up the story and popularized it.

For better of for worse, Badgley’s work has remained nearly as obscure as the story it addressed prior to its adoption by Frank Edwards. Despite its debunking, the tale of the little green men of Steep Rock Lake has failed to die, and continues to be presented as fact in books and articles to this very day. Even Atikokan’s historical authorities remained ignorant of the story’s true nature for decades after Badgley’s revelation. In a letter to American Fortean researcher Gary Mangiacopra, dated February 6, 1992, a representative of the Atikokan Centennial Museum wrote, in reference to the aforementioned articles:

“When I first read these articles myself, I asked a few locals about it. Apparently there were numerous other sightings of different happening [sic] in the area. However, this particular incident was the only one documented to my knowledge.”

Despite the efforts of serious ufologists to set the record straight, the tale of the little green men of Steep Rock Lake remains to this day one of Ontario’s great urban legends.

 

Sources

  • Flying Saucer Base?; written anonymously by Gordon Edwards; in the September 1950 issue of the Steep Rock Echo; courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
  • Correspondence between Gary S. Mangiacopra and the Atikokan Centennial Museum & Historical Park; dated February 6, 1992, and February 25, 1992; courtesy of Gary S. Mangiacopra
  • Steep Rock Flying Saucer, in the February-March 1952 issue of the magazine Fate, courtesy of Gary Mangiacopra
  • UFOs Over Canada: Personal Accounts of Sightings and Close Encounters (1996), John Robert Colombo
  • July 2, 1950, Steep Rock Lake, Ontario, Canada, A Man and His Wife; by Patrick Gross; in January 21, 2007 issue of Ufology.PatrickGross.org
  • Image of flying saucer and little green men courtesy of FrimfuFilms

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Captain Voss and the Voyage of the Tilikum

Captain Voss and the Voyage of the Tilikum

Tilikum” is the Chinook Jargon word for “friend” (Chinook Jargon being a pidgin trade language of the Pacific Northwest). Many people most readily associate this word with “Tilly”, the late, controversial, man-eating captive orca which once performed tricks at Seaworld Orlando and Victoria’s now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific.

Many people might be surprised to learn that the Victoria, British Columbia, is also associated with another extraordinary seagoing “Tilikum”- a 150-year-old Nootkan dugout canoe which made an incredible 40,000 mile journey across the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans in the early 1900s, piloted by the notorious Captain John Claus Voss.

An Unlikely Partnership

The story of the Tilikum begins in a hotel bar in Victoria, British Columbia, one evening in the spring of 1901. As was typical of seaside watering holes in the Victorian era, the tavern that evening was filled with colourful characters from all over the Pacific. Russian sealers swapped tales with Klondikers newly returned from the Yukon goldfields, and local fishermen spun yarns with British merchant sailors fresh from the opium docks of Hong Kong. Amidst the usual mix of seadogs and stevedores who often frequented such establishments sat an ambitious young newspaperman named Norman K. Luxton.

Today, Norman Luxton is remembered as “Mr. Banff”, one of the most prominent early citizens of Banff, Alberta. The son of William Luxton, founder of what is now the Winnipeg Free Press, Norman founded his own paper, the Banff Crag & Canyon (now the Bow Valley Craig & Canyon)- Banff’s first newspaper. An avid student of First Nations art and culture, he established a curio and taxidermy shop called Sign of the Goat- one of Banff’s first tourist shops- as well as Banff Indian Days, a bygone annual celebration of Stoney Indian culture. And as a devout conservationist, he played an important role in saving the plains bison from extinction.

On that evening in 1901, however, Norman Luxton was simply a 24-year-old journalist hungry for a good story. As he nursed his beer, a short, stocky sailor sporting a bushy handlebar mustache sauntered into the bar. Luxton sensed that this weathered seaman had a story or two to tell, and so he pulled up a stool beside him and struck up a conversation.

This character, Luxton learned, was a 43-year-old adventurer from northern Germany named John Claus Voss. A sailor with many years of experience, Voss had taken up residence on Canada’s Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s. For several years, he had owned and operated a small hotel and butcher shop in Chemainus, BC, as well as Queen’s Hotel in Victoria, situated at the corner of Store and Johnson Street, and the Victoria Hotel on Government Street (the latter being perhaps the oldest hotel in the city). The German regaled the young reporter with tales of his prospecting adventures in the Colorado Rockies and an erstwhile treasure hunting expedition he took part in alongside members of the British Royal Navy on an island off the coast of Ecuador. He also bragged that he had smuggled illegal Chinese immigrants into California and illegal Chinese opium into Vancouver, and that he sometimes “Shanghaied” his hotel guests, drugging them at the hotel bar and selling them to unscrupulous sea captains in need of crewmembers.

Soon, talk turned to the historic voyage of Joshua Slocum, a Canadian-American adventurer who had completed the first solo circumnavigation of the globe in a sloop called the Spray three years prior. Luxton asked Voss if he thought he had the skills to accomplish a similar feat in an even smaller boat. The sailor assured Luxton that he did.

Luxton knew, judging from the fame that Slocum’s exploit had garnered, that a first-hand account of such a feat would be the story of a lifetime. Then and there, he offered Voss $2,500 and half the royalties of a book he intended to write if he took on Luxton as his first mate and sailed around the world in a vessel smaller than the Spray. Although Luxton admitted that he had no prior sailing experience, Voss accepted the journalist’s offer. In no time, preparations for the voyage were underway.

The Tilikum

In order to accomplish this audacious endeavour, Voss knew that he’d first have to acquire a suitable vessel. He began to look for such a craft on the east coast of Vancouver Island.

The tale of how Captain John Voss found and acquired the Tilikum is shrouded in mystery. According to the most popular version of the tale, Voss came across a Nootka village where he saw a 38-foot dugout war canoe carved from a single log of western red cedar lying on the beach.

“It struck me at once,” Voss recalled in his 1913 memoir The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss, “that if we could make our proposed voyage in an Indian canoe we would not alone make a world’s record for the smallest vessel but also the only canoe that had ever circumnavigated the globe. I at once proceeded to examine and take dimensions of the canoe, and soon satisfied myself that she was solid, and also large enough to hold the provisions and other articles we would have to carry on our cruise.”

While Voss appraised the canoe, he was approached by a Nootkan elder who informed him that he was the craft’s owner, and that the boat had been built by his father fifty years prior. After plying the native with rye whisky, Voss acquired the craft for $80 in silver dollars, which he had brought along with him expressly for this purpose.

In order to make the canoe more seaworthy, Voss, with the help of shipwright Harry Vollmers, fortified it with a wooden frame; raised the topsides; installed a keel, rudder, and ballast; built a 5-by-8-foot cabin and a cockpit; constructed three masts and four sails; and added water and storage tanks. He christened the craft “Tilikum”, the Chinook Jargon word for “friend”, and together with Norman Luxton, set sail on May 20th, 1901, embarking at Victoria’s Oak Bay.

The Nootka Village

The first stop on Voss and Luxton’s epic voyage was a remote Nootka village nestled in a cove on the west coast of Vancouver Island. There, the partners were received by a bewhiskered Scottish trader named McKenzie. Voss and Luxton stayed a week in the village, spending their days harvesting clams and hunting ducks and deer.

One night, the two partners, on Luxton’s suggestion, went searching for Indian curios in a Nootka graveyard. Traditional Nootka burial customs dictate that bodies of the deceased, along with most of their earthly possessions, be interred in bentwood cedar coffins which are, in turn, placed on platforms built high up in trees. After observing some of the rotten baskets and rusted guns that lay beneath the funerary trees, having fallen through the decayed wood of the platforms on which they once rested, Voss and Luxton proceeded into a nearby cave. Inside, they found skeletons wrapped in blankets, their skulls bearing evidence of a head-flattening technique practiced by certain tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

When the two partners attempted to take some of the skulls out of the cave, they were confronted by armed and angry Nootkan warriors who had evidently been waiting for them to exit. Voss and Luxton told the furious tribesmen that they did not know about the cemetery inside the cave, having discreetly dropped the skulls when they were still concealed by the cavern’s gloom, and so the natives let them off with a stern warning.

The following two days, the adventurers accompanied a Nootkan hunting party on a whaling expedition. On the first of these forays, a monstrous whale smashed one of the party’s cedar canoes to pieces with a single slap of his tail, sending its native occupants swimming for safety. On the second foray, the hunters succeeded in harpooning a whale to death, whereupon its carcass was towed to shore and processed. A huge feast ensued, followed by much singing and dancing. In his autobiography, Voss wrote: “The chief gave me a piece of the whale meat, which I cut up in strips and fried, and it turned out to be excellent steak.”

The Tempest

Voss and Luxton left the Nootka village July 6th and headed out into the open ocean. That day, they watched a pod of orcas hound a whale which breached over and over in a desperate attempt to evade its pursuers. Being sympathetic to the whale’s plight, the sailors drove the orcas away from their prey by shooting at them with their rifles.

The adventurers sailed southwest, bound for the remote Marquesas Islands nestled deep in the South Pacific. Not long into their journey, they were beset by a ferocious ocean gale. In his memoir, Voss related how he was obliged to instruct a frightened and disobedient Luxton, who wished to ride out the storm, on the merits of “heaving to”- the practice of dropping anchor and steering the boat into the wind in order to slow its progress so as to avoid capsizing. After Voss administered a vicious tongue-lashing to his obstinate shipmate, a terrified Luxton dropped the anchor as Voss commanded and the Tilikum began to ride the waves.

In his own memoir, Luxton’s Pacific Crossing, published posthumously in 1971 by his daughter, Eleanor, Norman Luxton wrote:

“It is a queer sensation to be thirty-five feet below a wall of water, that looks just as if it were going to fall right on top of you, when suddenly up goes the canoe and there is a roar of water on each side of you that you can’t see over, with a path through the wall that the drag has made up for the boat to go through. Then down once more you go into the trough of the next wave.”

Luxton’s confidence in the Tilikum’s seafaring ability improved greatly as the voyage progressed, as evidenced by the following excerpt of a letter he wrote to his mother:

“I have seen such mountains of water as I never could dream of but the Tilikum went over everything like a bird, and wind has no effect on her at all. I am more than ever convinced that she is safe as any boat on the sea.”

The Wraith of George Grieve

This gale was but the first of many that the Tilikum and its crew of two would weather. As Voss and Luxton neared the equator, they passed through a succession of fierce storms and deceptive calms. On August 18, 1901, when the weather was exceptionally mild, Norman Luxton had a peculiar experience which he related in his memoir:

“I was on watch and I think I must have been dozing. I woke up and the waves had died down considerably with the storm, but there was still white water. Sitting on the cabin roof, I suddenly saw my old friend George Grieve, of Winnipeg, a dear and lovely old friend… Quite plainly to my sleepy eyes I could see him, and while I cannot say that he told me in actual words to get busy and make sail, he told me to do just that, and to do it at once. I did not hesitate a moment to go forward, pull in the sea anchor and hoist everything the Tilikum had, and hit a course southwest. There was a sequel to the appearance of my friend George Grieve, in my dreams. I read in my Canadian papers when I got to Australia that he was dead, and had died shortly before he came and told me to make sail.”

Penrhyn Island

Ultimately, Voss and Luxton were obliged to alter their course towards the isle of Penrhyn, one of the northernmost Cook Islands, instead of the easterly Marquesas, on account of strong winds. After many days of sailing, Voss finally spied Penrhyn Island on the horizon.

“On seeing the land,” Voss wrote, “my mate got so excited that he threw his hat up in the air, and gave three cheers for old Canada. Unfortunately, the hat went overboard, and I had to tack ship to pick it up.”

Although Voss was reticent to set foot on Penrhyn, suspecting that its native inhabitants might be hostile cannibals, Luxton vehemently insisted that they do so, eager as he was to observe the tropical ecology and the native culture. After a violent quarrel, Voss indulged his companion, but only after loading his firearms and fortifying the cockpit with sandbags. His suspicions were allayed when, upon approaching the island, he and Luxton were greeted heartily by American and English crewmembers of a French schooner. Shortly thereafter, Voss and Luxton received a warm welcome from the island natives, who proved to be exceptionally generous and friendly.

Voss and Luxton spent several days on Penrhyn enjoying the hospitality of the locals. In his memoir, Luxton claimed that an island matriarch trapped him into marriage with her daughter, a local princess, out of which he only managed to escape through tact and quick thinking.

After having their boat cleaned and painted and their larder stocked with fresh coconuts, the voyagers bid the natives farewell and set sail for the southwesterly isle of Manihiki, the so-called “Island of Pearls”.

Manihiki

That night, the crew of the Tilikum made landfall at Manihiki. When Voss and Luxton sailed around its western shore, they quickly found themselves surrounded by canoes filled with natives shouting at them to stop. The self-proclaimed chief of the welcoming party nimbly boarded the Tilikum and insisted, in broken English, that the two sailors visit his village before they continued on their journey.

The following day, Voss and Luxton were received by the Pacific Islanders and, through a local trader who served as interpreter, were introduced to the King and Queen of Manihiki. The royal family treated the seamen to a sumptuous feast of roasted pig, chicken, flying fish, and various tropical vegetables, attended by all the natives of the village.

During the feast, two island princesses placed colourfully-beribboned panama hats on the heads of their guests of honour. Soon afterwards, other island girls followed suit, removing the panama hats and adoring the sailors’ crania with their own headgear. Immediately after this, two more girls repeated the performance.

“This was as much as my mate could stand,” Voss wrote. Luxton stood up and asked the interpreter to inform their hosts that the next young lady who changed his hat was going to be kissed. This elicited much laughter and chatter from the locals.

“The next thing we saw,” wrote Voss, “the oldest woman of the lot (she must have been about a hundred years of age, for she was all doubled up and could hardly walk), came along with a straw hat, and as she got nearer Mr. Luxton turned pale. I said, ‘Courage, Norman, courage: don’t go back on your world’; but I am sorry to say that my mate did on that occasion. However, the young ladies and hats continued arriving, and by the time we got through with our feast, we had quite a few hats.”

That evening, the native girls of Manihiki adorned the Tilikum with colourful ribbons and presented the sailors with the leftovers from the feast, carefully wrapped in huge leaves. After spending two more music and dance-filled days on the island, Voss and Luxton thanked their hosts and departed for the southwesterly Samoan Islands.

Danger Island

On the night of September 28, 1901, Voss and Luxton reached an island known today as Pukapuka, situated roughly halfway between Manihiki and the Samoan Archipelago. In 1901, this island bore foreboding name “Danger Island”. Knowing little about the isle aside from its sinister appellative, the sailors decided to spend the night anchored offshore in the Tilikum rather than hazard a nocturnal disembarkment.

The following morning, Voss and Luxton sailed the Tilikum towards the shores of Danger Island. There they were greeted by natives who were eager to host them. As Voss could not find a suitable location to anchor his craft, he declined their invitation to visit their village, to their obvious displeasure. When they saw that they would not change the German’s mind, the Polynesians presented him and Luxton with eggs and coconuts, which the sailors gratefully accepted before setting sail for Samoa.

Cabin Fever

Nearly every seaman to sail with Captain John Voss and live to tell the tale commented upon the German’s extraordinary ability as a sailor and his abominable qualities as a sailing companion. Norman Luxton was no exception. In addition to extolling his virtues as mariner, Luxton described Voss as unbearably egotistical, alarmingly aggressive, and subject to violent moods when under the influence of alcohol.

Several days out of Danger Island, Voss took issue with Luxton’s nautical performance. He grabbed the Canadian by the collar and shoved him into the cabin, threatening to murder him and dump his body overboard. Luxton kept a cool head and proceeded to calmly wash the dishes. That accomplished, he seized a .22 calibre revolver, aimed the gun at Voss’ head, and locked his belligerent companion in the cabin of the Tilikum, intending to keep him there until they reached Samoa.

“Dangerous as were the storms and calms of the Pacific,” Luxton wrote in his memoir, “they were as nothing compared to the clash of our personalities. Before we ever reached Apia, Samoa, we hated each other, and I was certain Voss intended to do me harm.”

Samoa

After three days of hard sailing, the Tilikum arrived at Upolu, the second largest of the Samoan Islands. By this time, the two sailing companions had made amends, and Luxton had released Voss from the cabin.

As they made their way into the harbour at Apia, the capital of what was then German Samoa, Luxton and Voss found all the ships’ flags flying at half-mast. Shortly thereafter, they learned that word had reached the island that morning of the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley, who had succumbed to gunshot wounds on September 14.

Voss and Luxton spent several days in Apia, during which they met the former King of Samoa. One evening, the ex-monarch invited them to a traditional Samoan dinner. At this event, their host introduced them to three beautiful Samoan women and asked Luxton to examine their teeth. When Luxton determined that the ladies’ teeth were clean and healthy, the three women sat on a mat around a wooden bowl half-filled with water and proceeded to chew pieces of kava root, a plant endemic to the Pacific Islands. After chewing the root to a pulp, the women squeezed the product of their mastication with their hands so that the juice dripped into the bowl. Once the kava juice was thoroughly incorporated into the water, it was served to the sailors in coconut shells. Although the juice was bitter and unpleasant to drink, the sailors drained the bowl out of courtesy, and in doing so learned first-hand the powerful narcotic effects of kava consumption.

Fiji

After several days of rest and relaxation, during which Luxton visited the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson, Voss and Luxton boarded the Tilikum and departed for the westerly Fiji Islands. At a point nearly halfway between Samoa and their destination, they arrived at Niuafo’ou, the most northerly island in the Kingdom of Tonga, a protectorate of the British Empire.

On the shores of Niuafo’ou, Voss and Luxton encountered a mounted British official who informed them that they could not enter the island without a permit from the Tonga government. He also warned the sailors that the locals had a penchant for “long pig”, or human flesh, and that it was in their best interest to leave as soon as possible. Sure enough, on their way out, the men of the Tilikum were accosted by a band of Tongan pirates, whom they only managed to drive away with a warning shot from an old Spanish cannon.

Voss and Luxton continued on towards the Fiji Islands. They arrived on one of the northernmost of the Fijian isles two days later. Luxton decided to explore the island, taking his gun and camera with him, while Voss opted to stay by the boat and cook dinner.

When Luxton did not answer the gunshots he fired to signal that dinner was prepared, Voss grabbed his rifle and waded onto the island. He quickly found an old footpath that led towards the heart of the island and decided to follow it. Not far from the beach, at the edge of the jungle, he came across an abandoned hut fronted by a sizeable pile of human bones. Cognizant of the fact that the Fiji Islands were once justifiably known as the “Cannibal Isles” Voss decided to return to the Tilikum and wait for Luxton. He found a tiger shark encircling the canoe, and after shooting it through the head, learned that Fijian sharks have a proclivity for cannibalism rivalling that of their human neighbours.

Fortunately, Luxton returned to the Tilikum that evening no worse for wear, having bagged a brace of tropical fowl.

The voyagers continued on towards Suva, the capital city of Fiji, situated on Viti Levu, the largest of the Fiji Islands.

Man Overboard

A short distance from Suva, the Tilikum ran aground a coral reef. Immediately, an errant wave rolled the canoe onto its side, and Luxton was swept overboard. When he came to, Luxton found himself stranded on the reef, his body torn by the sharp coral, and the Tilikum nowhere in sight. Knowing that the waters off Fiji were infested with sharks, he struggled to stay atop the reef, battling with the incessant waves that seemed hell-bent on pushing him over the edge.

“Extra large waves,” he wrote, “casting tons of water over the reef, would throw me further into the lagoon. Frantically would I put on more steam to reach the reef away from the sharks, only to get more Hell from the coral.”

After a Herculean struggle, Luxton somehow managed to work his way onto an uninhabited beach where he was picked up by Voss, who had left him for dead.

Suva

After resting for some time, the inconsonant pair sailed on to Suva. There, Luxton sought medical attention while Voss paid a visit to a local tavern.

The doctor who treated Luxton’s wounds urged the newspaperman to abandon the voyage. This was all Luxton needed to hear. The Canadian left the hospital and set out to find Voss, intending to inform him that it he hoped to complete his voyage, he would have to do it with another mate.

Fortunately for both parties, Voss had already found Luxton’s replacement in the person of Walter L. Begent, an adventurous 30-year-old soldier and sailor from Tasmania, whom the German had met in a bar and enticed into service. Before Voss headed out into the Pacific with his new partner, Luxton privately warned Begent of Voss’ quarrelsome disposition and urged him to dispose of Voss’ liquor stash, which the German had restocked in town, as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

Sydney

Norman Luxton took a steamer from Suva to Sydney, Australia, where he and Voss planned to reconnect. Luxton waited in Sydney for some time, but when Voss failed to arrive ten days after his expected landfall, the Canadian gave him up for dead.

Then, one sunny afternoon, Voss arrived in Sydney Harbour alone on the Tilikum. He told Luxton and a local journalist that he and his new mate, Walter Begent, had encountered some of the worst storms he had ever seen en route to Sydney. One night, when they were but five days out of Suva, he “saw a large breaking sea coming up near the stern.” He shouted a warning to Begent, who had not secured a lifeline around his waist in accordance with his advice, but it was too late. An errant wave swept the Tasmanian overboard, along with the Tilikum’s only compass. Voss was unable to save his companion, and was forced to abandon him to his fate.

In his posthumously-published biography, Luxton voiced his suspicion that Voss had actually murdered Begent in a drunken rage and thrown his body overboard, as he himself had regularly feared for his life while sailing with the testy Teuton.

Although Luxton did not plan on doing any more sailing with Voss, he still hoped to publish a book on his experience, the royalties from which he had agreed to split with Voss, and knew that the success of this book would depend on the Tilikum’s successful circumnavigation of the globe. As such, the German and the Canadian teamed up once again and toured Australia with the Tilikum, hoping to raise money for provisions and repairs.

The Rest of the Voyage

After raising sufficient funds, Voss and Luxton parted ways again in Melbourne, Australia.

Accompanied by a succession of nine different mates, none of which suffered his company for long, Voss managed to sail the Tilikum to Tasmania, New Zealand, the New Hebrides (a cluster of islands east of Australia), and into the Indian Ocean by way of the Torres Strait (which separates Australia from Papua New Guinea), taking her past the Great Barrier Reef. He sailed her across the Indian Ocean to the remote Mauritian island of Rodrigues, nearly running out of water in the process. From there, he sailed to the city of Durban, South Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and headed across the Atlantic to the island of St. Helena. He completed the Atlantic crossing, making landfall in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. After that, he sailed back across the Atlantic, riding the Gulf Stream to the archipelago of Azores off the coast of Portugal and onward to Margate, England, his final destination, which he reached on September 2, 1904. In total, the 40,000-mile voyage of the Tilikum took three years, three months and twelve days.

The Fate of the Tilikum

The epic voyage of the Tilikum did not bring Voss and Luxton as much success as they had initially hoped. Norman Luxton never ended up publishing the book he had hoped to write (at least, not in his lifetime), and went on to become one of the most prominent citizens of Banff, Alberta. Voss, on the other hand, returned to Victoria, where he dabbled in the hotel business for some time before moving to Yokohama, Japan, where he published The Adventurous Voyages of Captain Voss. He later worked as a sealer in the Bering Strait off the coast of Siberia before finally settling down in Tracy, California, where he spent the rest of his days working as a taxi driver.

As for the Tilikum, it was exhibited at the 1905 Naval, Shipping, and Fisheries Exhibition- a world fair intended to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (a crucial British naval victory in the Napoleonic Wars)- held in Earl’s Court, a district of London, England. It passed through a number of different hands before it was finally abandoned on the shores of the River Thames. In 1929, the Tilikum was rescued and restored by citizens of Victoria, British Columbia, and returned to its home in the Pacific Northwest. For many years, the vessel was displayed in Victoria’s Thunderbird Park alongside Nootka and Kwakwaka’wakw totem poles. On June 8 1965, it was transferred to Victoria’s Maritime Museum of British Columbia, where it resides to this very day.

Sources

  • A almost forgotten Odyssey- 40,000 Miles in an Indian Dugout, by Francis Dickie, published in the September 1954 issue of Popular Mechanics, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
  • The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss (1913), by John Claus Voss
  • MacFarlane, John M. (2002) Captain John Claus Voss FRGS. Nauticapedia.ca 2002. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Tilikum_Voss.php
  • MacFarlane, John M. (2002) Norman Kenny Luxton. Nauticapedia.ca 2002. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Tilicum_Luxton.php
  • Captain Voss and Tilikum, by Robert Holtzman, on November 8, 2011 issue of IndigenousBoats.Blogspot.com
  • The Voyage of the Tilikum: Walter L. Begent is drowned. Captain accused of throwing him overboard, on Begent.org/Voss
  • Captain Voss, from TelusPlanet.net
  • Around the World by Canoe, by Graham Chandler, in the May 2001 issue of The Beaver

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How Canada Saved the Buffalo

How Canada Saved the Buffalo

No doot aboot it: we Canadians love our wildlife, and we’re not afraid to show it. Visitors to our country are greeted by images of moose, blue whales, and Canada geese when they step off the plane, and the polar bear, the elk, and the beaver- animals as quintessentially Canadian as ice hockey and maple syrup- keep Her Majesty company on our toonies, quarters, and nickels.

Considering our national affinity for the denizens of our great outdoors, many Canucks would be pleased to learn that Canada played a major role in one of the greatest conservation success stories the world has ever seen: the saving from extinction and the re-proliferation of the buffalo.

The Age of the Buffalo

The bison, or American buffalo, is a massive, horned, woolly ruminant native to North America- a descendant of one of the great Pleistocene giants that wandered across the Bering Strait land bridge during the last Ice Age. Today, the bison can be divided into two subspecies: the plains bison (Bison bison bison), and the larger, more northerly wood buffalo (Bison bison athabascae).

Before the 19th Century, millions of plains bison roamed the grasslands of North America in enormous herds. For millennia, the Plains Indians of what is now Canada and the United States subsisted almost entirely upon these so-called “Kings of the Prairie”, using their meat and marrow for sustenance, their hides for shelter and clothing, their bones for tools, and their dung for fuel.

One of the most effective methods by which the Plains Indians hunted this animal involved natural cliffs, or “buffalo jumps”. During such hunting operations, a band would build two long funnel-like drive lanes extending from the edge of the cliff to the open prairie. These drive lanes were composed of hundreds of stone cairns, each built several meters apart from one another, often augmented with dirt, buffalo dung, tree boughs and sagebrush.

Over a period of several days, specialized hunters well-versed in animal behavior would disguise themselves as juvenile bison and prairie wolves and lure a buffalo herd into the drive lanes. When the majority of the herd was within the lanes, hunters who had concealed themselves behind the cairns would suddenly leap out from their hiding places, screaming and waving buffalo robes. At the same time, the hunter disguised as a juvenile buffalo would “flee” towards the cliff, prompting the startled herd to follow him. Just before he reached the cliff’s edge, the “buffalo runner”, as this elite hunter was called, would retreat to safety behind the line of the cairns. If all went as planned, the entire herd would stampede off the cliff to its death, unable to stop on account of its massive momentum. Hunters waiting below would finish off wounded and crippled buffalo with spears, bows and arrows, and clubs.

Although Plains Indian bands sometimes managed to wipe out entire herds during these annual buffalo hunts- believing, as many of them did, that any bison which managed to escape the slaughter would disclose the secret of the hunt to its woolly compatriots- the bison population on the Great Plains and Canadian prairies remained extremely robust.

The Disappearance of the Buffalo

In the late 1700s, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, two rival fur trading enterprises, expanded westward onto the eastern edge of the Canadian prairies. Soon, that area, comprising what is now Manitoba and North Dakota became populated by bands of Metis- the progeny of French and Scottish fur traders and First Nations women.

Like the western counterparts of their maternal ancestors, the Metis were excellent buffalo hunters. Instead of driving their prey off cliffs or herding them into buffalo pounds, however, Metis hunters shot them with muskets from horseback. In order to provision their voyageurs for their long voyages along the waterways of Rupert’s Land, the fur trading companies began purchasing huge quantities of pemmican from the Metis, pemmican being a nutritious travel food composed of equal parts dried pulverized buffalo meat and rendered buffalo fat, on which many of the Plains Indians had subsisted since time immemorial. The pemmican trade quickly grew into a thriving industry which slowly took its toll on the bison population on the eastern prairies.

Around this time, the First Nations of the western Canadian prairies were introduced to the horse, an Old World animal that had slowly worked its way up the continent since its introduction to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors. Many of the Plains Indians quickly became proficient horsemen, and their way of life changed completely. With these new equine vehicles, the Plains Indians were able to hunt more quickly and efficiently than ever before. The fruitful buffalo hunts that ensued allowed them to increase their population, resulting in an imperceptible yet very real decrease in that of the plains bison.

In the mid-1800s, the American Fur Company, a Yankee rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company (the latter having absorbed the North West Company in 1821), expanded up the Missouri River, taking the fur trade to the Great Plains. Certain Plains Indians tribes began to deliver buffalo robes to American traders in exchange for Western goods. One of the items the Plains Indians acquired through this trade were firearms, which allowed them to hunt the buffalo with even greater ease. And thus the bison population on the Great Plains was further curtailed.

In the early 1870’s, a cheap process for tanning hides was developed in Europe. Almost overnight, demand for buffalo hides, which could be transformed into leather for militaries and durable industrial belts for factories, exploded. Unlike buffalo robes, which could only be harvested in the winter when bison coats were thickest, buffalo hides intended for use as leather could be harvested at any time of the year. Soon, hordes of big game hunters poured onto the Great Plains from the eastern States via the Union Pacific Railroad and began slaughtering bison by the millions for their hides alone. The already-dwindling buffalo population began to plummet at an alarming rate.

The final nail in the coffin of this monarch of the plains was forged at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which saw the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment wiped out by Sioux warriors under the command of Chief Sitting Bull. Following this defeat, high-ranking U.S. Army officers routinely sponsored and outfitted civilian hunting expeditions, hoping to drive the buffalo to extinction, thereby forcing the Sioux and other uncooperative Indian tribes to settle onto reserves without having to engage them in battle. Although the U.S. Army did not have an “official policy” aimed at the destruction of the buffalo, as popular history sometimes contends, its top brass were manifestly pleased to see buffalo hunters doing “more… to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular Army has in the last 40 years,” as U.S. Army General Philip Sheridan put it.

Due to this potent cocktail of market and martial forces, the bison that once dominated the Great Plains were reduced to a scattering of tiny herds teetering precariously on the verge of extinction by the mid-1880s.

Saved from Extinction

Fortunately, in the autumn of 1873, a Canadian Pend d’Oreille Indian named Samuel Walking Coyote had saved four orphaned buffalo calves in southwestern Alberta. He had driven the bison southwest into the United States, over the Rocky Mountains to the Saint Ignatius Mission in Montana south of Flathead Lake. There, the tiny bison herd grew slowly, numbering thirteen head by 1884.

That year, a Mexican half-breed named Michael Pablo purchased ten of the St. Ignatius bison for the hefty price of $2,500 and turned them loose on the neighbouring Flathead Indian Reservation. The three remaining St. Ignatius bison eventually wound up on a ranch near Kalispell, Montana, where they founded a herd of their own.

In 1906, the United States government decided to open the Flathead Indian Reservation for homesteading. By this time, Michael Pablo’s semi-wild bison herd had swelled to a population of 631. Knowing that he would be unable to maintain his herd once settlers moved onto Flathead land, Pablo offered to sell his bison to the U.S. Government. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, a great conservationist himself, asked Congress to accept Pablo’s offer, but his proposal was turned down.

Fortunately, a newspaperman from Banff, Alberta, named Norman Luxton learned of Pablo’s desire to sell his herd and encouraged his friend, Frank Oliver, Canada’s Minister of the Interior, to purchase it. Oliver recognized that acquiring Pablo’s buffalo herd would give Canada an opportunity to play a major role in what one writer described as “the greatest animal come-back in the history of the world.” He took Luxton’s advice and, through his office, purchased the Flathead bison.

It was arranged for Pablo’s buffalo herd to be driven north into Canadian territory, where it would be resettled on a 170-square-mile plot of government land near the town of Wainwright, in east-central Alberta, which had been dubbed “Buffalo National Park”. Unfortunately, the Flathead buffalo were as wild in temperament as their ancestors. Although Michael Pablo hired America’s best cowboys to drive his herd, the transplant was far more difficult than expected. After six years of gruelling work, which saw a dozen horses gored, ten riders injured, and one cowboy killed, every last Flathead bison had been relocated in Buffalo National Park. Today, Alberta’s Highway 41, nicknamed the “Buffalo Trail”, follows the approximate route of this great bison drive up the Canadian prairies.

In the early 1900’s, Michael Pablo’s old herd in Buffalo National Park was supplemented by a small, separate, all-Canadian bison herd that had been raised in Banff, Alberta. This smaller Banff herd was descended from five bison calves that had been saved by Winnipeg fur trader C.B. Alloway near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, in 1874, a year after Samuel Walking Coyote adopted his own buffalo orphans in southwest Alberta. Also added to the Buffalo National Park herd were thirty bison descended from the three St. Ignatius animals put out to pasture in Kalispell, Montana. By 1914, the motley herd in Buffalo National Park, all of its members ultimately descendants of nine Canadian prairie bison calves, numbered 833 head.

The Return of the Buffalo

The bison herd thrived in Buffalo National Park, and within a few decades, its population numbered in the tens of thousands. Government-sponsored mammologists determined that the park was not large enough to support such tremendous growth, and so every year, many of the buffalo were slaughtered for meat. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, this surplus stock supplied 670,000 pounds of buffalo meat to needy Canadian citizens. By 1940, the culling operation required to keep the herd at a sustainable level had become so impracticable that Canada’s federal government decided to close the park.

During the heyday of Buffalo National Park, the prairie bison’s larger northern relative, the wood bison, was making a comeback of its own in the boreal forests of northern Alberta and Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. In order to help this species get back on its feet, the Canadian government established the 17,300-square-mile Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada’s largest national park (and the second largest national park in the world), in 1922. From 1925-1928, the government supplemented the wood bison population in Wood Buffalo National Park with 6,673 plains bison from Buffalo National Park via railroad and barge. There, the two bison species interbred, creating a hybridized bison species.

Conservationists feared that the interbreeding of plains and wood bison would endanger both pure species. Indeed, by the 1950s, it was believed that the pure wood bison was finally extinct, having interbred with the plains bison for decades. Then, in 1957, a herd of 200 wild wood bison was discovered in Northern Alberta. In 1965, 23 of these pure wood bison were transplanted to Elk Island National Park, an elk sanctuary in central Alberta. Today, populations of both wood bison and plains bison inhabit Elk Island National Park, painstakingly kept apart by park employees. Earlier this month (August 2018), Parks Canada released 31 plains bison from Elk Island National Park into Banff National Park, where C.B. Alloway raised some of their ancestors over a century ago.

Of course, national parks are not the only abodes of the modern day buffalo. Ranchers all across Canada maintain healthy bison herds of their own. Today, it is estimated that around 400,000 bison live in North America, thanks in no small part to the efforts of a handful of farsighted Canadian conservationists.

Sources

  • How Canada Saved the Buffalo, by Francis Dickie in the March 1966 issue of the magazine Rod & Gun in Canada, courtesy of American Fortean researcher Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra
  • The Frontier Army and the Destruction of the Buffalo: 1865-1883, David D. Smits, in the Autumn 1994 issue of the Western Historical Quarterly
  • Killing the Canadian Buffalo, 1821-1881, by William A. Dobak, in the Spring 1996 issue of the Western Historical Quarterly
  • Bye, Bye Bison, by Daniel Benjamin, on March 1, 2012, on the website PERC.org
  • The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920 (2000), by Andrew C. Isenberg

 

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How John A. Macdonald Helped the First Nations

How John A. Macdonald Helped the First Nations

On Saturday, August 11, 2018, the City of Victoria, British Columbia, removed a bronze statue of Canada’s First Prime Minster, Sir John A. Macdonald, from the grounds outside City Hall. According to Victoria’s Mayor Lisa Helps, the decision to remove the statue was part of the city’s ongoing reconciliation program with the local Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations. Sir John A. Macdonald, Helps explained, was one of the chief architects of Canada’s residential school system- an institution which resulted in the suffering of members of various First Nations, including the Esquimalt and the Songhees.

Helps’ decision to remove the statue has been roundly criticized by many who object to what they see as an attempt to erase Canadian history, and who maintain that it is irrational to judge figures from the past by today’s moral standards. Supporters of the decision, on the other hand, argue that the injustices that Macdonald inflicted upon the First Nations outweigh the contributions that the Father of Canadian Confederation made towards the betterment of the nation he helped found, thus justifying the removal of statues erected in his honour.

Many supporters of the decision to remove the statue might be surprised to learn that John A. Macdonald, despite his flaws, helped to save many of Canada’s First Nations from a terrible fate.

The Whisky Trade

In the mid 1800’s, the western Canadian plains were dominated by the powerful Blackfoot Confederacy, an alliance comprised of the Siksika, the Peigan, and the Kainai First Nations. The Blackfoot were a warlike people notorious for slaughtering trespassers who dared to venture into their territory. They were also great hunters who subsisted almost entirely upon the buffalo, which roamed the Great Plains in enormous herds.

In the 1840’s, the American Fur Company (AFC), a major American fur trading enterprise which competed with Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), expanded into the Upper Missouri region on the border of Blackfoot territory. In 1846, they established a fur trading post called Fort Benton on the banks of the Missouri River in northern Montana, in the heart of South Peigan territory. They began to trade with the Blackfoot on whose lands they encroached, selling muskets, steel tools, and wool blankets in exchange for buffalo robes. In a few short years, Fort Benton rose to become the economic centre of the Great Plains.

Similar to the Hudson’s Bay Company, one of the commodities that the AFC sold to its native customers was diluted liquor. Many of the South Peigan, as it turned out, had an enormous affinity for alcohol, and over time many of them were drawn into alcohol dependency. Cognisant of the negative effect that alcohol had upon their Blackfoot clients, the AFC was careful to limit its sale, but kept the commodity on its shelves in order to compete with the HBC.

By the 1860’s, the fur trade was in decline, and in 1865, the AFC sold Fort Benton to the U.S. Army. Almost immediately, a number of small fur trading companies formed to fill the vacuum. Unfortunately, many of these smaller companies cared far less about the welfare of their Blackfoot customers than the larger company that they replaced. In an effort to compete with one another, they exploited the Blackfoot’s proclivity for alcohol, selling enormous quantities of liquor to them without restraint. While the quantity of the alcohol these independent traders sold was greater than that of the AFC, its quality was often much worse. Instead of selling diluted rum or brandy, these traders peddled a cheap, dangerous concoction of American whiskey, red ink, turpentine, tobacco, and river water, sometimes supplemented with a dash of toxic strychnine.

The combination of dishonest business practices and a surfeit of whiskey bred the perfect environment for violent conflict, and in no time the whiskey traders and the Blackfoot were at each other’s throats. The many bloody altercations between white frontiersmen and South Peigan warriors that characterized Montana in the 1860’s were dubbed the “Blackfoot Wars”.

When a number of Montanan farmers were murdered by Blackfoot braves, the United States Army stepped in. Rather than resolve the conflict diplomatically, the U.S. Army decided to discipline the Blackfoot through violence. This heavy-handed approach was characteristic of the United States’ relationship with unruly or uncooperative American Indians; that same decade, the U.S. Army had fought bitterly with the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, and Apache Indians in what are collectively known today as the American Indian Wars. Ultimately, the U.S. Army’s involvement in the Blackfoot conflict culminated in the Marias Massacre of 1870, in which a U.S. Cavalry squadron slaughtered a band of 200 friendly South Peigan, most of them women, children, and elderly men, on the banks of the Marias River.

In order to avoid conflict with the U.S. Army, many South Peigan bands fled north into British territory, where they knew the blue-coated “Long Knives”, as they often called sabre-wearing U.S. Cavalrymen, would dare not follow. A handful of enterprising Montanan whiskey traders decided to follow their clients into Canada and establish trading posts across the border, in what is now Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Like their American precursors, the traffic of these so-called “whisky forts” had a devastating effect on the Blackfoot people, transforming a powerful Confederacy into a nation of starvelings and alcoholics who would do anything for a cup of firewater.

John A. Macdonald’s Response

Following Canadian Confederation in 1867, John A. Macdonald endeavoured to make Canada a great nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In order to accomplish this, he knew that he would have to convince the Province of British Columbia to accept the terms of the Canadian Constitution, and in order to do that, he would have to connect British Columbia with the easterly Dominion of Canada via a massive transcontinental railroad. In order to build this railroad, the Dominion of Canada would need to own the land in between British Columbia and the Dominion- a vast, wild territory controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company, known for centuries as Rupert’s Land (present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Northwest Territories). In 1870, Macdonald’s government, with the permission of the British Crown, purchased Rupert’s Land and dubbed it the

North-West Territory.

When John A. Macdonald learned of the American whisky trade that was taking place in the North-West Territory, he knew he had to put a stop to it in order to assert Canada’s sovereignty there. Throughout much of the 19th Century, the concept of Manifest Destiny- the idea that the United States was destined to expand across North America- had a strong influence on American foreign policy. The United States had acquired Louisiana from the French, Oregon from the British, Texas from the Mexicans, and Alaska from the Russians, and since the end of the American Civil War, had shown an interest in expanding the American Empire into Rupert’s Land. If Canada failed to assert its authority on this western frontier, the North-West Territory would almost certainly fall into the hands of the United States.

The Prime Minister knew that the only way to achieve this end would be to dispatch a force of mounted riflemen to the North-West Territory to quell the whisky trade. This force could not be strictly martial in nature, however; these riflemen would also have to contend with the powerful Blackfoot Confederacy on whose land they would encroach, and unlike the Americans, the fledgling Dominion of Canada could not afford to wage wars against hostile Indians. It was clear to John A. Macdonald and his Cabinet that the only way to combat the whisky trade, come to a peaceful arrangement with the Blackfoot Confederacy, and ultimately bring law and order to the Canadian west, thus paving the way for a transcontinental railroad, was by dispatching a force of mounted policemen to the western prairies. And thus the concept of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) was born.

For several years, John A. Macdonald, who was notorious for his procrastination, delayed the formation of the NWMP, afraid that the Dominion of Canada was still unable to afford it. Finally, after receiving word of the Cypress Hills massacre, which saw scores of Canadian Assiniboine slaughtered at the hands of American wolfers, Macdonald authorized the formation of the North West Mounted Police.

The Early Accomplishments of the NWMP

In 1874, the North West Mounted Police rode from Manitoba to the southwestern edge of the North-West territories. There, through tact, courage, and candour, they brought an end to the whisky trade and established a good relationship with the local Blackfoot.

If it weren’t for John A. Macdonald, the North West Mounted Police would likely never have formed, and what is now Alberta, Saskatchewan, and much of Manitoba would probably have fallen into the hands of the United States. One can only speculate as to the tremendous damage the whisky trade would have wrought upon the Blackfoot people had it not been suppressed by the NWMP, and on the atrocities that would have occurred had the blue-coated troopers of the American Cavalry dealt with the Peoples of the Canadian Plains instead of the red-coated Mounties.

Considering all this, does the Father of Canadian Confederation deserve a second chance in the eyes of Canadians? Or does he deserve to have his statues torn down? Let us know in the comments below.

 

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Legends of Cobourg’s Victoria Hall

Legends of Cobourg’s Victoria Hall

If you drive fifty minutes south from Peterborough, Ontario, you’ll come to the lively little town of Cobourg. Despite its relatively small size (or perhaps because of it), this Canadian town on the northern shores of Lake Ontario has an exceptionally vibrant community, the members of which seem to take enormous pride in its heritage. According to resident John Draper, “life in Cobourg is as near ideal as it can be. The town is small enough to be friendly and free of city problems yet large enough to have great entertainment and cultural activities as well as good stores.”

The crowning jewel of this quaint Ontario town is Victoria Hall, an impressive heritage building which dominates King Street, situated as it is two blocks north of Cobourg’s historic harbour. This 19th Century monument is home to a number of intriguing legends, including a rumour of an illicit Royal affair and two chilling ghost stories.

 

The Story of Victoria Hall

In order to set the stage for the legends of Victoria Hall, a little backstory is required.

The Rise of Cobourg, Ontario

The town of Cobourg, Ontario, in which our legends take place, was first founded in the wake of the American Revolution by United Empire Loyalists- American expatriates loyal to the British Crown. Due to its favourable location on Lake Ontario, Cobourg quickly grew into an important regional milling and manufacturing centre, its population bolstered by an influx of poor but hard-working Irish settlers.

By the mid-1800’s, many Cobourg residents believed that their town was destined to become one of Upper Canada’s most important cities. Their optimism was fuelled by the Grand Trunk Railway’s plan to build its mainline, which would connect Toronto with Montreal, through the town. In order to cement Cobourg’s fate as one of Upper Canada’s most prominent cities, the town’s citizens decided to build their own railway- the Cobourg and Peterborough Railroad- north to the town of Peterborough, transforming Cobourg into a regional transportation hub.

The Cobourg Peterborough Railroad

The Cobourg and Peterborough Railroad was completed on December 29, 1854, at significant cost to many of the townspeople. In an effort to compete with their neighbouring rival, the westerly town of Port Hope, the town council of Cobourg had insisted that the railway be built across Rice Lake- a long, three-mile-wide body of water that stood between Cobourg and Peterborough- rather than around it. To do otherwise would be to concede Port Hope’s geographic superiority, as a railway circumventing the lake would be much longer than a railroad from Port Hope to Peterborough, which would naturally skirt the lake’s western shores. As a result, the railwaymen had constructed a massive, three-mile-long wooden bridge across the lake- one of the most impressive engineering feats in North America at the time, and the largest contemporary trestle bridge in the world.

On New Years’ Day, 1855- three days after the railroad’s grand opening to the public- the bridge across Rice Lake shifted, its wooden supports unable to withstand the force of the expanding lake ice. The structure was quickly straightened, and for the next two years, underwent constant repairs as the train it supported routinely serviced the citizens of Cobourg.

The Construction of Victoria Hall

In 1856, when it seemed fairly certain that the railway was there to stay, Cobourg’s town council hired celebrated Toronto architect Kivas Tully (after he won a design competition they held) to design a grand civic building worthy of Cobourg’s status as Ontario’s next great metropolis.

By the early autumn of 1860, Tully’s creation was complete. On Cobourg’s King Street, not far from the waterfront, stood an enormous architectural masterpiece built of pale yellow brick and elaborately-carved sandstone. This 700,000-square-foot, three-story, E-shaped landmark was built in the Palladian fashion (“Palladian” being a style inspired by the designs of 16th century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, who was, in turn, inspired by Classical Greek and Roman architecture), complete with Corinthian columns, a Greco-Roman roof, and an orator’s balcony, and capped with an impressive clock tower. The ornamental sandstone framing the entrance bore carvings of the Tudor rose, the Scottish thistle, and the Irish shamrock, reflecting Upper Canada’s British heritage.

The splendour of the building’s interior matched that of its elegant exterior. Its courtroom was modelled after London’s historic “Old Bailey”, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales. Its meeting rooms and offices were similarly ornate. Its ballroom was exquisite, constructed in Baroque fashion. And its crowning glory, its 1000-seat Concert Hall, was hand painted in trompe-l’oeil style.

This magnificent building was named “Victoria Hall” in honour of Great Britain’s reigning monarch, Queen Victoria.

Victoria Hall’s Grand Opening

At the time of Victoria Hall’s completion, Queen Victoria’s 19-year-old son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (Great Britain’s future King Edward VII), was undertaking the very first Royal tour of Canada- a tradition which endures to this day. To the townspeople’s delight, it was announced that Prince Edward would visit Cobourg during his tour and take part in the grand opening of the opulent town hall which had been named in honour of his mother.

On September 7, 1860, Prince Edward and his retinue arrived at Cobourg Harbour by steamer. Accompanied by an honour guard of Upper Canada’s Volunteer Militia Rifles, he travelled by carriage to Victoria Hall. After delivering a formal address, the Prince of Wales opened the grand ball, and by 11 o’clock that night, the teenage Prince was dancing with the gleeful ladies of Cobourg.

 

A Royal Affair

According to legend, one particularly attractive Cobourg lady named Mrs. Parks caught the eye of Prince Edward in Victoria Hall’s ballroom that evening. Whatever happened between the young aristocratic and Canadian lady that night is a matter of pure conjecture. Roughly nine months later, however, Mrs. Parks gave birth to her son, Archie, who is said to have grown up to bear a remarkable resemblance to King George V, the son and successor of King Edward VII. To make this tale even more intriguing, legend has it that Archie would come into the Cobourg bank once a month to deposit sizeable cheques from the British Treasury.

The Prince’s Departure

The day following Victoria Hall’s first grand ball, Prince Edward was invited to travel to Peterborough, the next destination on his tour, via the newly-constructed Cobourg and Peterborough Railway. The Prince accepted the invitation, and in no time the journey was underway.

At about halfway between Cobourg and Peterborough, the train reached Rice Lake and its infamous wooden bridge. At this point, Prince Edward and his retinue exited the train and announced that they were going to travel across the lake via steamboat instead of by rail (a steamer had regularly ferried passengers across the lake since the 1840’s, when a rough plank road connected Cobourg with Rice Lake). Although the Prince’s aides claimed that water travel would afford Prince Edward a better view of the lake’s scenery, the mortified townspeople suspected that the decision was prompted by a lack of confidence in the bridge’s structural integrity.

The Collapse of the Rice Lake Bridge

Whatever the case, history shows that any potential misgivings about the solidity of the bridge over Rice Lake might not have been entirely unfounded.

Shortly before Prince Edward’s visit, the men of the Cobourg Peterborough Railroad were approached by a mysterious businessman who advised that they allow him to lease their railway to the larger Grand Trunk Railroad. Believing this to be a profitable venture, the railwaymen agreed.

Unbeknownst to the men of the Cobourg Peterborough Railroad, this businessman was, in fact, an agent of their arch rival, a burgeoning railway company from Port Hope. Instead of leasing the railroad to the Grand Trunk, the businessman sold it to the Port Hope railwaymen, who subsequently had their employees sabotage it by removing its iron bolts and fittings for use in their own railroad. Shortly thereafter, the middle section of the bridge over Rice Lake collapsed. The structure was never rebuilt, and Cobourg has remained a small Ontario town with an uncharacteristically grandiose town hall ever since.

 

The Courtroom Ghost

Despite the tragedy surrounding its genesis, the citizens of Cobourg, Ontario, have put Victoria Hall to excellent use. Its celebrated Concert Hall has staged countless plays, shows, speeches, and musical productions over the years. It has seen many a local church fundraiser and political rally. During the Fenian raids of the 1860’s and ‘70’s, it served as an armoury for the first and second Companies of the 40th Northumberland Battalion, and during the first two World Wars, it housed the workshop of the Cobourg Branch of the Red Cross.

In addition to these aberrant functions, Victoria Hall, for many years, served as the town hall it was originally meant to be. It held the municipal and county administrative offices of Cobourg and Northumberland, respectively, as well as several law offices and Masonic lodge rooms. And for many years, its sunken courtroom served as the arena for countless legal disputes and witnessed the trials of Northumberland County’s criminally accused.

According to legend, sometime in the 1870’s, a defendant condemned to some unenviable fate leapt from the prisoner box in the courtroom of Victoria Hall and ran down the aisle to the front doors in a last-ditch escape attempt. To his dismay, he found that the doors were locked. He shook them desperately, with all his might, but could not get them to open.

Legend has it that, on quiet summer nights, those same doors rattle violently, shaken by the shade of that unfortunate prisoner who remains unable to escape the courtroom of Victoria Hall, even in death.

The Restoration of Victoria Hall

In 1970, a hundred and ten years after its grand opening, cracks were discovered in the walls of Victoria Hall. The structure, it seemed, had shifted, much like its 19th Century counterpart, the ill-fated bridge over Rice Lake. The following year, Victoria Hall- a National Historic Site since 1959- was vacated, having been declared structurally unsafe.

As the town was unable to afford repairs, a motion was made for the building’s demolition. The motion was denied by a single opposing vote cast by Cobourg’s Deputy Reeve, a lady named Lenah Field Fisher.

Instead of allowing the magnificent building to fall into decay, Lenah Fisher founded the Society for the Restoration of Victoria Hall. Throughout the 1970’s, she and other Society members carried out a fundraising campaign with the aim of restoring the historic building to its former glory.

The campaign was ultimately successful, and Victoria Hall was officially reopened in 1983. Unfortunately, Lenah Field Fisher was unable to enjoy the fruits of her labour; she passed away in 1980, posthumously donating her money and her estate to the cause.

Some say that the spirit of Lenah Fisher returned to witness Victoria Hall’s grand reopening. During one of the speeches in the opening ceremony, a ball globe light fixture exploded immediately after her name was said. If Lenah Fisher truly paid a visit to Victoria Hall in spirit that day, a number of first-hand accounts reported by performers and staff seem to suggest that she may have never left.

 

The Green Lady of Victoria Hall

Since the early 1980’s, both regulars and visitors have reported seeing the apparition of a woman wandering the corridors of Victoria Hall, only to vanish before their eyes. Most often, this mysterious spectre is seen wearing a green velvet dress, earning her the nickname the ‘Green Lady’.

Victoria Hall’s Concert Hall is said to be the Green Lady’s favourite haunt. One performer named Jamie Hunt once watched the hem of a woman’s dress disappear through a backstage wall at the exact spot at which the door to the caretaker’s quarters once stood. Hunt’s future wife, Beth, who now works as the Concert Hall facilitator, once observed the taps in the backstage washroom turning on and off by themselves during the middle of a performance. Production and tech crews have opened up the Concert Hall’s control booth to find the lighting and soundboard levels mysteriously tampered with, and performers have reported seeing a mysterious lady in green watching them during rehearsals.

Some suspect that this spectre might be the ghost of Lenah Fisher, returned from the grave to walk the halls of the historic building she fought so hard to preserve.

 

Sources

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